Even the savviest entrepreneur can become a wallflower at a networking event. Follow these easy steps and stay informed, confident and memorable in any room.
1. Make time for networking. Attend the must-do events in your industry and seek out new opportunities off the beaten path. Ask your customers and business associates which events top their industries' lists and the professional associations they recommend joining, suggests Michael Hughes, founder of Ottawa-based consultancy Networking For Results.
2. Most event organizers will give you a list of registered attendees. Use LinkedIn or other social media to research and identify the people you want to meet. "You'll have lots of information at your fingertips to figure out how to start a conversation with the most relevant people to your business, plus you'll have photos to help you pick them out of the crowd," suggests Wayne Breitbarth, author of The Power Formula for LinkedIn Success. Download the LinkedIn app for your smartphone and identify your prospects across the room.
3. Find out what attendees are saying on social media. Search for the event's official hashtag on Twitter, and "Like" it on Facebook, to see what is top of mind for attendees. Join the conversation and increase your profile by asking or answering questions about the event. Make plans with other attendees to hook up during the festivities.
4. Listen more than you speak. If a new acquaintance wants to tell you everything about his business, let him. "He'll either disqualify himself as a prospect" or give you so much information that when it's your turn to talk you can have a really meaningful conversation, says Hughes.
5. Be valuable. No matter how good your pitch, you're not selling anything today. Instead, learn about the people you are talking to by asking "what," "how" and "why" questions to encourage descriptive answers. Look for ways you can help them by suggesting a resource or offering an introduction to someone in your network. And "whatever you say you're going to do, do it. Your credibility can go [downhill] so quickly," says executive coach Colin Holbrow, principle and executive coach at Toronto-based The Holbrow Group.
6. Prioritize follow-up. Unlike in romance, following up within 24 hours makes you memorable, not a stalker. "Focus on the connections who have the highest professional value for you," says Hughes. "You'll be more motivated and achieve better results faster." A good time-management suggestion: of the 30 to 50 cards you collect at a conference, select 5% for follow-up, advises Hughes.