I don’t think I am alone in sometimes dreading networking events or conferences. Walking into a room of strangers and making small talk about the weather or how good/bad the local sports team is (in my case, the Oilers have been bad for a very long time). Standing in uncomfortable clothes, drinking cold coffee out of tiny hotel cups, and plastering a smile on your face as you count down the minutes until you can politely excuse yourself.
Now we also have online networking events added to the mix which adds additional layers of challenge with glitchy technology, poor sound quality, and unclear social norms. Sitting in your living room in your yoga pants and blouse combination, hoping your kid/pet/partner doesn’t cause a scene behind you while you try to introduce yourself in a breakout room.
Sounds terrible, right? My inner introvert is cringing just thinking about it.
Going to an event, or attending one online, and leaving feeling terrible is a waste. It’s a waste of your time, energy, and passion.
This doesn’t mean you should forgo events altogether. It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, you can take a step back and, you guessed it, take a more intentional approach.
The following are the intentional approaches I have learned so I can attend fewer events and get more out of the ones I do attend.
9 ways to get more out of networking by being intentional
1. Get clarity on the type of people you want to meet
The whole purpose of networking is to connect with other people so you need to know who is it you are trying to connect with.
- Are you trying to meet new potential customers?
- Would you like facetime with a potential mentor?
- Do you want to recruit new employees?
- Are you interested in reconnecting with a former supplier?
Each of these groups may be at a wide variety of different events so consider who you are looking to meet and target your events appropriately.
2. Decide which organizations you want to be involved with and what you are trying to get out of that involvement
There are a lot of accelerators, business groups, and non-profits out there. Each with many events, learning opportunities, and fundraisers throughout the year. What do you want out of your involvement with them?
- Is it an organization you are passionate about and want to contribute to?
- Is it a business group that you know has a good mix of potential clients and connections?
- Is it an entrepreneurial accelerator that has a lot of learning opportunities for you to build your skills?
Once you know which organizations, you can decide the level of commitment you are willing, and have time, to give. For example, it could be board membership, monthly volunteering, or attending their annual events, or as a financial donor. These all have different aspects of networking and commitment levels.
3. Set a goal for what you want to get out of each networking event
Before you walk into an event, set a goal. Think about why you are there and what you are trying to achieve.
- It is face-time with potential customers?
- An introduction to a particular vendor?
- Are you interested in the content being presented as a learning opportunity?
- Learn more about the other players in your industry?
- Find a partner in a complementary industry to help you with a particular project?
Knowing what you want out of the event allows you to focus your actions on getting to that outcome. You are also able to be more intentional about the questions you ask and the people you approach.
4. Research your event options, set a budget, and put them in your calendar
Once you know who you want to meet, what you are looking to get out of the events, and which organizations you want to be involved in, you can go look for them. Scour websites, follow people and organizations on social media, ask relevant people in your current network if they have any events on their radar, and make a spreadsheet to track it all. This will give you a list of available opportunities and narrow your options.
When you have your list, figure out how much you want to spend each month or year and set a budget. Then you can work out which events are likely to give you your biggest bang for your buck based on who you are trying to meet and what you are trying to achieve.
Then reflect on your life commitments and decide how many events you think you can reasonably attend in a week or month without burning yourself out. Finally, get the events in your calendar so you know when they are coming up and can plan your time accordingly.
5. Take a networking buddy or find the other solo people
It can be intimidating to go to events on your own so consider partnering up with a friend or colleague to attend some of your chosen events. You may be able to introduce each other to new people and ease the transition into new conversations.
My only caution here is to use your networking buddy as a touchpoint, not a crutch. For example, my husband and I learned early on that we cannot attend most networking events together because we end up just wanting to hang out with each other! You will not likely get much out of going to an event if you spend the whole time huddled up with your friend.
Alternatively, find the other solo people. They likely feel just as awkward as you do, sitting alone at a table or hovering at the edge of a group. Throw them a lifeline and introduce yourself.
6. Put your phone away
I have been guilty of using my phone as a way to not look like I am standing by myself awkwardly but rather reading something *very* important.
I get it. Interacting with others is hard and it’s natural to want to stand in a corner or sit at a table looking at your phone. It feels safer. Unfortunately, it also makes you seem unapproachable.
Put your phone away and smile at people. Someone will eventually smile back and throw YOU the lifeline, and make an opening to break into their group.
7. Ask questions and be curious
Once you do start talking, try to break out of small talk as fast as possible. Ask questions lots of questions! People generally like to talk about themselves and it is an opportunity to learn a lot about them.
You will, of course, want to share about yourself too, but be mindful that you are not the focus. There is nothing worse than walking away from a conversation and realizing that you know nothing about the person you were talking to. You are way more likely to achieve the goal you set at the beginning of the event if you are being intentional about learning more about others, not talking about yourself.
8. Take a few notes after each event
At the end of each networking event, jot down any relevant notes or comments about the people you met, the conversation you had, or the event itself. They help you remember names and details about your conversations, and give you the opportunity to reflect on whether the event was worth your time.
It can be an incredible advantage in building goodwill when you can bring up details of past interactions with people you see at events regularly because it shows you were paying attention and were genuinely interested. The notes help you keep track of things so you can refer to them before other networking events and arm yourself with conversation starters.
9. Follow-up with people you connected with soon after the event
If you did make a few good connections at an event, immediately follow them on whichever social media platforms seem reasonable. If appropriate, send an email follow-up within 24 hours, while the event is still top of mind and they will remember your conversation.
Consider if there is an action you can take to solidify yourself in the other person’s mind. Perhaps it is an article to share related to your discussion, an introduction to someone who might help them, or just a thank-you note for a great conversation.
Networking events don’t have to be terrible. You have a lot of power over how valuable your experience is by being intentional about the who, what, why, and how of each event. Give it a try!