09/04/2014 04:55 EDT | Updated 11/04/2014 05:59 EST

5 Steps to Successful Business Networking


You've just been invited to a high-profile business function, and you know it could be a great opportunity to network and meet potential clients or perhaps make a good impression on a job prospect.

When you realize that you don't know anyone in the organization, you may start to feel uncomfortable. The first thing is to relax.

It is all about putting your best foot forward and you can make this networking opportunity work for you by following these five tips:

#1 Research and Prepare

Take the time in advance to learn more about the organization, and at least some of its key people. Make sure you understand what will be the appropriate attire for the occasion, and dress appropriately. If anything, err on the side of being more conservative -- you want people to remember you for what you added to the event, not what you wore. And if it's appropriate, eat something before you arrive, so that your focus is on people and not the buffet table or the servers.

#2 Look and Listen

You've already prepared by learning about the organization in advance, but don't stop there. At the event, seek out the sponsor or a key organizer (look for a ribbon or special name tag) and show your interest in the group. Listen attentively to the remarks of all speakers, and avoid any whispering or talking while a speaker is engaging the room. In one on one conversations or engaging with a small group, ensure you are attentive to the group dynamics so you don't overpower the conversation.

#3 Strike the Right Balance

It's expected that people will talk business at a business event, but no one wants a sales presentation. Keep your "pitch" more personal and conversational for a social setting. Strike the right balance between explaining your services and listening carefully. Good listening skills are critical to be a successful professional in any field.

#4 Avoid Any Missteps

Even polished professionals can make a gaffe at a business or social event if they speak without thinking of the consequences. So before your event, take a minute to remind yourself of these sure-fire conversation-killers: Introducing yourself with a joke or a story about yourself; checking your communication device instead of focusing on people in the room; discussing health, political or religious issues that might offend others; and offering strong or possibly controversial opinions on sports teams, international events, investment managers or styles; save those for your family and friends. Remember that it's much easier to avoid a misstep than to recover from one.

#5 Be a Cool, Calm Professional

Especially when you're at an event where you don't know many people, understand how to make a good first impression -- and a connection. That means standing at the centre of the room (away from the bar and buffet table), where people of influence tend to congregate. Make eye contact with a person who seems receptive to a conversation, and establish common ground -- perhaps a neutral topic like travel or golf -- that might lead to a business discussion. Wait until you're asked for a business card, before offering yours. Again, remember that a potential client or business interest will be more impressed by your listening skills -- after all, prospects could well be looking for someone who clearly understands their needs and objectives.