Though it can still be a bit intimidating, there are a few things that we can do before, during, and after networking events to help us improve in making new professional connections.
When I started working, I have to admit that I was a little surprised to find that networking is something you would constantly need to do. I was young, looked young, had little to zero confidence, and was very unprepared to talk to these daunting people with the suits, gravitas, and years of professional experience. Fortunately, you can now find a whole lot of advice to young people when it comes to networking everywhere. Here are a few things that I learned to do before, during, and after networking events that help me improve in making new professional connections.
Mental preparation: I do a quick scan of The New York Times or even Google before the networking event to keep three go-to topics handy. Usually, I go with topics I am already comfortable with like tech trends or current events. You can also read up on something you have recently learned that piqued your interest, which you think would be worthwhile to share.
Emotional preparation: As an introvert, doing small talk with different strangers drains me quite a bit. Knowing that about myself, I prepare by having a couple of hours to myself prior to the event. I take the time to read a book first or listen to a podcast or some calming music.
Physical preparation: Before even entering the room, I take the moment to smile. Research says that among the many positive benefits of smiling include the release of hormones that trigger positive feelings, helping you relax and making you look approachable and friendly.
Often, it's much more valuable to have a good conversation with a couple of people rather than having to try to work the whole room. You don't have to speak to every person in the room to consider the networking event a success. Instead, consider taking the time to get to know the people you are talking to by asking them follow-up questions and listening intently to their responses. The most memorable conversations I have had at networking events are with people who seemed genuinely curious about what I do. Their common behaviours are listening, asking smart follow-up questions, and not hopping on to the next table to meet other people as soon as they get my business card.
Whenever holding a conversation, my unpopular advice is this: you don't necessarily have to answer their questions. Let me explain. In sales, we were taught again and again to ask the right questions. By right, I mean questions that are direct and open-ended, as opposed to those yes-or-no, close-ended questions which only encourage single-word answers. From that experience, I learned that people in general are not the best at asking questions. Usually, their questions revolve around "What do you do?", "Where are you from?", or "What do you think of topic x?"
Although I am not against these questions, (and I do encourage you to prepare for these), it is sometimes helpful for you (and the person you're talking to) to use their question as a transition into an interesting and relevant story, instead of just answering their questions with direct and unoriginal answers.
People love stories. In fact, research suggests that listening to a feel-good story helps produce oxytocin, which we all know is the hormone highly associated with empathy and feeling good. Next time you find yourself being asked what it is that you do, consider using that as a segue to that amusing story of how you found your job, or a touching story of how you were able to assist a customer one seemingly uneventful day, or how semi-involved you are in this cool new tech trend. Do be sure to keep the story relevant and as brief as possible at all times.
Once you have exchanged cards and said your polite goodbyes, make sure to remember (or better yet, write down) the remarkable things about the people you met. Short phrases will do. These will help trigger your memory if you meet them again at a future event or if you encounter anything relevant to them or their business. It's not necessary, but it's an incredibly nice gesture to connect them to your existing friends with mutual interests.
You may have heard it before, but I will say it again: Networking is about giving. More than benefiting from these people, your goal should be to give and to know people with jobs and experiences you may never have even known. Once you have these in mind, you are more than ready to go to your next networking event to give value to your future professional connections, and even find your potential future colleagues or bosses.
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