A year ago, after 20 years as a retail training and development manager, I finally made the leap to consultant. I was busy and in-demand from the get go. I have now explored all of my personal and professional contacts and need to build a new network.
At the invitation of a client, I will be attending my first cocktail networking event as a solopreneur. Schmoozing does not appeal to me. Although I am quite outgoing I feel uncomfortable and shy about the whole process. Please forward any face-to-face networking tips or tricks for the contemporary professional.
Let me first start by reassuring you, face-to-face networking does not appeal to most people. The majority of those that you will meet are feeling exactly as you do.
Understand, the goal of networking is to build a mutually supportive net. Picture yourself as a trapezist and imagine a net of people supporting you below. Then, imagine the people supporting you, individually at the top of the trapeze. You are now supporting them.
Networking is about connecting to find equally beneficial relationships. Basically put, when thinking about networking, think about whom you can help and who can help you. To be of assistance to people you must understand what their needs are. That is the basis of face-to-face networking.
You are meeting all of these new faces to funnel information about them. Here too, the funnel is a strong visual. When meeting people face-to-face you usually start large and wide. As your relationship evolves you will narrow your contact to target in and mutually satisfy needs.
Here are a few guidelines to take you from the entrance to the exit of a cocktail networking event:
1. Prepare, have an agenda
Do your homework before attending the event. Find out about the organization that is hosting the event, its members, the guest of honour, and invited guests. Make a list of those you can offer assistance to. Have a couple of safe conversation topics that include: recognizing recent achievements or honours, and current or upcoming events.
2. Know why you are there
Contrary to popular belief, a cocktail networking event is not about eating or drinking. You are there to mingle for business. It is always a good idea to eat a little of your favourite comfort food to settle your stomach. You don't want to spend the evening chewing away unable to contribute to the conversation or being a lounge lizard. Keep it professional and keep your right hand clean and ready to shake.
3. Practice your elevator speech
In a few sentences, while using the five Ws and adjusting to your audience, tell people what you do and show them how they can benefit from your services. For example: "I am a business etiquette and international protocol consultant. I give the answers to social and professional sticky situations. My mission is to empower people (students to spies) with what to do or say so they can be the best that they can be."
4. Dress the part
Although the event may be held in a bar, you are still there to make professional contacts. What you wear should reflect what you do in the business world, not how you dress to stay up late.
5. Walk in, pose, and scout
As you enter do not head to the bar nor for the nibbles. Walk through the door, shoulders back, head up straight, look ahead, and step to the right. Stop, look, observe, and yes, be seen for a moment or two. You are in search of a group of three or five that that seems relaxed and open to a newcomer. Another option is to wait for a newcomer at the door and then connect with him or her.
6. Introduce yourself
When coming up to a group ask if you can join in. Always introduce yourself with your full name. Only using your first name makes you half as powerful. Continue with your elevator pitch. It is also a good idea to add how you are connected to the event by stating who invited you, why you joined the association, or how you know the guest of honour. Complete by shaking hands and meeting, all in the group.
7. Converse but more importantly listen
The art of conversation is not so much about what you say but more importantly about listening and showing genuine interest in others by asking open-ended questions. Contribute to the conversation. Stay clear of one-word answers. To find out a little more about the other party ask: "What do you like to do when you are not working?"
8. Don't deal or fold business cards
Business cards should be impeccable and up to date. Don't hand them out or accept them without having exchanged information with your new connections.
9. Know when and how to go
A cocktail networking event is about moving around and meeting people. The usual amount of time spent with one person is about 15 to 20 minutes. When the time comes, wait for a lull in the conversation and politely excuse yourself to acknowledge the host, welcome a client, meet a colleague, or introduce guests to one another. Complete your departure by shaking hands.
10. Leave and follow up graciously
When leaving make sure to thank those responsible for the event and those who invited you. Follow up by sending personalized thank-you notes to those whom you enjoyed meeting and you could be of service to. Invite them to connect further. Fulfill all promises you made.
Remember, networking is not about collecting business cards and is not one size fits all. It is about building relationships and that takes time.