Professional networking is certainly not every entrepreneur’s cup of tea.
Many small business owners, startup founders and entrepreneurs are naturally outgoing. These social butterflies have no hesitation when it comes to sharing their sparkling personalities with potential business connections. If this is you, your biggest networking challenge is likely finding relationships with the most potential or identifying the right moment to make a pitch.
However, there are also many entrepreneurs for whom working a room full of unfamiliar faces presents a gut-wrenching, heart-pounding challenge.
If the thought of striking up a conversation out of the blue with potential peers, mentors, investors or strategic partners makes you nervous, you’re not alone! There have been many successful entrepreneurs who are naturally introverted: Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg just to name a few.
To achieve your goals, you don’t have to be a natural extrovert — but you should have some basic networking skills. The good news is there are some networking strategies you can start using now to help you build rewarding business relationships.
If you do happen to be one of those naturally outgoing entrepreneurs, these same strategies can also help you find more new connections in unexpected places, forge stronger bonds and even lead to more mutually profitable long-term relationships.
Here are our 10 best tips that are sure to help you get more out of your next networking event.
1. Have a Few Fail-Proof Icebreakers Up Your Sleeve
Does the thought of walking up to a stranger and starting a conversation seem intimidating? Having a few reliable conversion-starters you can always fall back on can dramatically increase your confidence.
One of our favorites for networking events that have a learning component (like ONTRApalooza) is to start out a conversation by asking about what they’ve learned. For example, at an ONTRApalooza networking party, kick off a conversation by asking, “Which one of today’s speakers was your favorite?” or “What was the most useful thing you’ve learned from today’s sessions?”
Another fail-proof conversation starter is to give someone a compliment! Share your admiration for their laptop bag, their shoes or even their business cards.
For an even easier conversation starter, try finding a loner at the event — look for someone standing alone on the sidelines or trying to make themselves look busy at the food table — and strike up a conversation that acknowledges the universal awkwardness of networking with strangers. Careerealism suggests trying a line like “Man, these networking events can be so crazy. Mind if I join you over here where it’s a little quieter?” to quickly and painlessly break the ice.
2. Feeling Shy? Get in a Line — Any Line!
One of the toughest moments of any networking event is the moment when you first walk in, scan the crowd and find that you’re on your own. If you’re not prepared to charge fearlessly into the crowd, try getting in line for something — drinks, food, a book signing — any queue will do!
Here’s why Devora Zack of Careerealism says getting in line is a smart strategy: “A queue gives you a place to put your body and a temporary purpose in the world. There are only two people to talk with — the person in front and person behind you. There is a reward — whatever is given out at the front of the queue. And a natural ending — the front of the queue. Nice meeting you! Ta-ta!”
3. Show Up Early
Especially for introverts, this is an important tip. By showing up before the event has really gotten into full swing, you’ll have more opportunities to insert yourself into a group and make connections without breaking into an established conversation that began long before you showed up.
Some people have no trouble walking into a room full of small conversational circles and effortlessly becoming part of the dialogue, but for everyone else, the trick is to show up early when there’s less competition for conversation partners.
4. Offer to Help Others Instead of Asking for Help
Many people mistakenly view networking events solely as an opportunity to ask, ask, ask. Whether you’re looking for new clients, investors or a mentor, this mindset can cause you to miss out on relationship-building opportunities.
Instead of looking for your chance to ask others for a favor, start looking for your chance to do them a favor. You could help them out by introducing them to someone, sharing an idea for their business, volunteering your expertise to solve a problem they’re facing or even just by sending them an interesting article.
By looking for ways to be helpful, you’ll build up social capital and trust that will benefit you in the long run.
5. Strengthen a New Bond by Asking for a Favor
Although focusing only on what favors you can ask for is strategy guaranteed to backfire, you can still look for the right moment to ask for a small favor after you’ve cemented a new relationship.
It’s counterintuitive, but asking someone for a favor at the right time can actually increase their positive feelings toward you. Choose the right moment and ask for something small.
For example, ask a potential mentor you sat next to at an ONTRApalooza workshop to take a look at your landing page and offer their feedback.
6. Plan Your First Impression
If you’re nervous about putting your best foot forward, why not increase your confidence by rehearsing it? It’s a lot easier to feel comfortable at a networking event if you know you’re reflecting the best version of yourself.
To prepare to make a memorable first impression, approach your wardrobe thoughtfully. You don’t want to meet valuable potential connections wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, but is a starched suit and tie really the impression you want to leave?
Another factor to consider is body language. You may be communicating an unintended message! Crossed arms, hunched shoulders or even a weak handshake tell the world that you’re not open to connection, so be aware of how you present yourself. It may be helpful to practice the body language you want to use by role playing with a trusted friend before the event.
7. Do Your Homework Ahead of Time
You can get a lot more out of a networking opportunity by doing some leg work in advance. If you can get a list from the organizers of the companies and individuals who’ll be attending, do a quick Google or LinkedIn search on them to see if you can identify a few of your best networking targets.
If the event you’re attending has a Facebook event page like ONTRApalooza, check out the list of who’s RSVP’d and see if there’s anyone you’d like to get to know. You can even make a post in the discussion thread to find out if anyone would like to do a smaller meetup at the event! For example, you could invite attendees who are part of your industry or from your area to get together.
If there are specific people that you want to meet, be sure and read up on them beforehand. Find out if they have a blog, a podcast or even a published book. Mention your appreciation of their work when you first meet and you’ll be sure to make a lasting impression.
8. Stop Idolizing Business Cards
Some networkers treat business cards like baseball cards; for them, it’s all about collecting and trading. However, it’s important to remember that just because you’ve collected someone’s business card doesn’t mean that you’ve struck up a real relationship with them.
Instead of doing the rounds to collect business cards as if they were Halloween candy, focus on the quality of your interactions. If you’re feeling shy, simply swapping business cards and moving on from a conversation may be the easy way out, but is it really worthwhile?
Collecting business cards is smart because it allows you to follow up with new connections, but it isn’t the end-all be-all of networking. Which leads to our next tip …
9. Follow Up!
Let’s not mince words here. If you’re not following up with new connections after you meet them, you’re flat out wasting your time. It takes time to build a worthwhile business relationship. By reaching out after the initial introduction, you’re demonstrating that you care enough to stay in contact.
Following up goes beyond merely sending a LinkedIn invite: Send a personalized message and offer something of value. For example, send useful articles or links, share contact info of another interesting connection or even invite them for coffee.
Although it’s important to keep your follow-up personal, you can still use automation to save some time and improve your consistency. Write a basic follow-up email message that you can personalize with merge fields such as company name and event name. Include links to your favorite content, then input the contact info you harvested from the business cards you’ve collected into ONTRAPORT and subscribe them to your event follow-up sequence. Works every time!
10. Find Super-connectors
At any event, there are always a few people who know the most people. These people, often called “super-connectors,” have the potential to introduce you to most of their business friends and professional connections — which makes these relationships worth investing in.
People who are connected to a large number of different worlds are far more likely to introduce you to a new connection that none of your existing friends know. According to self-proclaimed superconnector Keith Ferazzi, author of Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time, the reason super-connectors are advantageous friends “is not only that we know thousands of people but that we know thousands of people in many different worlds, and we know them well enough to give them a call. Once you become friendly with a super-connector, you’re only two degrees away from the thousands of different people we know.”
With these simple strategies, you’ll be prepared to make the most out of your next big networking opportunity.