8 Approaches to Intentional Networking
Networking has become kind of a dirty word in many business circles. It is this strange social ritual that business people are expected to engage in but few really enjoy. Everyone cringes a little bit at the thought of walking into a room of strangers and making small talk about the weather or how bad (or good!) the Oilers are. Many of the events seem like a total waste of time. We envision standing in uncomfortable shoes, drinking coffee out of tiny hotel cups, and plastering a smile on our face as we count down the minutes until we can politely excuse ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
About three years ago I started transitioning into a business development role. This meant that I needed to be out at events and meetings for much of my time. It was a daunting path as I battled both my impostor syndrome and natural introversion. I left many events feeling exhausted and wondering why I had wasted my time. Looking back, the problem was not with the events (usually) but rather with how I was approaching them.
The following 8 approaches are things that I have learned that help me get more out of the networking events I attend.
8 Approaches to Intentional Networking
1. Be selective about what events you attend and organizations you join.
When I first started on my business development journey I figured that more was better. I jam-packed my calendar and was at a business or charity event or meet up nearly every night of the week. I went to every event I came across and joined several groups. I also ended up burning myself out and not getting much out of my efforts. I eventually took a step back and realized I needed to be more strategic and that I should instead try a quality over quantity approach.
The following steps are the strategy that I came up with and now use to be more intentional about the networking events I attend:
Clarify the type of people you are trying to meet at any given time.
Are you looking for new customers? Suppliers? Mentors? Employees? Colleagues? Each of these groups may be at a wide variety of different events so you need to consider who you are looking to meet and target your events appropriately.
Decide which organizations you want to support.
There are a million charities and non-profits out there. Each with many events and fundraisers throughout the year. You can’t attend them all! Instead, you need to decide which organizations you feel passionate about, and what kind of involvement you want to have with them. It could be board membership, volunteering, or attending events as a donor/supporter. All these have aspects of networking with varying levels of commitment.
Research and record the networking events.
Now you know who you want to meet and which organizations you want to support. Scour websites, follow people and organizations on Twitter, ask relevant people in your current network if they have any events on their radar, and make a spreadsheet to track it all. Include the name, type, date, cost, location and any supporting notes. This will give you a list of available opportunities and narrow your options.
Set a budget for your time and money.
Reflect on your life commitments and decide how many events you think you can reasonably attend in a week or month. Many of these events have costs associated with them so you will need to figure out how much you want to spend each month or year. Then you can work out which events should give you your biggest bang for your buck based on who you are trying to meet and what you are trying to achieve.
Record the networking events in your calendar.
Get the events in your calendar so you know when they are coming up and can plan your time accordingly.
2. Set a goal for what you want to get out of each networking event.
Before you walk into a networking event, think about why you are there and what you are trying to achieve. Is it to collect business cards? Learn more about the other players in your industry? Find a partner in a complementary industry to help you with a particular project? If you set a goal for what you want to achieve you can be more intentional about the questions you ask and the people you approach. Ask yourself “What is the outcome I want from attending this event?”.
3. Build your online persona by posting about networking event on social media.
Social media is often the frame through which people will view and judge you. Potential employers and customers will make snap decisions about you based on what they see. It is important that you are in control of this frame and are intentional about what is being posted. Posting pictures and information about the events you attend and the organizations you support can be a positive way to show how you are involved in your community and communicate your interests.
4. Find a networking buddy.
It can be intimidating to go to events on your own so consider partnering up with a friend or colleague to attend some 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 touch point but not a crutch. You will not likely get much out of going to an event if you spend the whole time huddled up with your friend.
5. Put your phone away, smile and give a good handshake.
This might seem obvious, but interacting with others can be hard and it is natural for some of you to want to stand in a corner or sit at a table looking at your phone. Unfortunately, this makes you seem unapproachable and defeats the purpose of being at the event in the first place. Instead, put your phone away and smile at people. Someone will eventually smile back and it is an opening to break into their group.
When you approach a group, make sure you shake EVERYONE’s hand. This is one of my pet peeves. It is something that shouldn’t have to be pointed out but unfortunately needs to be. Shaking hands is a part of our North American social rituals and is a sign of greeting, fellowship, and respect. Be inclusive and make it a good handshake, regardless of who it is.
6. Try to keep the focus of the conversation on others by asking questions.
Once you do start talking, break out of small talk as fast as possible and ask 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. This is much harder than it sounds and something I know that I have to be conscious of when I go to events. However, 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.
7. 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. For example:
- Nora Brown is opening a new location in January.
- Greg Carter and his wife are expecting their first child in March 2017.
- Phil Cassel is looking for a new operations manager. Email Hannah to see if she is interested in applying.
- Kate Parrish is going to Ireland for Christmas vacation. Email suggestions for restaurants in Dublin.
- Roberto has a client that might be interested in our services. Send a follow-up email for a potential introduction.
- XYZ Event was held at ABC location. The acoustics were poor, couldn’t hear the program. Avoid events at this location.
Notes like these 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.
8. Follow-up with potential contacts within 24 hours of 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 you. Consider if there is an action you can take to solidify you 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.
Networking events don’t have to be painful endeavors. If you are intentional about which events you attend, why you are attending, and how you approach each conversation, they can be very powerful. You will build relationships with the right people and add expertise to your proverbial business toolkit. You have a lot of power over how valuable your interactions are. Consider trying these approaches eight approaches to better networking and make those events worth your time and energy. At the very least, download my networking event tracker template to record and plan the events you are going to attend so you don’t miss out!