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Critics might call it a cliche, but there’s definitely some truth to it: When it comes to succeeding in business, who you know is just as important as what you know. We’ve seen VPs move from one company to another and take half their team with them. For that team, their relationship to the VP was the gateway to what could end up being their dream job. But you can’t just rely on your coworkers to fill out your professional network. That’s why smart professionals – particularly, but by no means limited to, younger ones coming up in their careers – attend networking events.
Networking events in your area are easy to find with a quick Google search. You might also get invited to one via email. Whether you’re actively in the job search or just staying attuned to the landscape of the industry, they’re a superb resource for those looking to build their professional profiles and advance their careers. But success at networking events isn’t a given. Getting the most out of them requires certain skills. Here are some tips to help you crush it at your next networking event.
1. Talk to Everyone
It’s normal for first-time networking event attendees to feel shy and linger by the hors d’oeuvre table instead of jumping into the fray. Even more seasoned networkers don’t always open themselves up as much as they should. You may find yourself hitting it off with someone you meet at an event – and that’s great. That person may be a valuable connection. But it’s a mistake to allow yourself to be so content talking to your new friend that you miss out on other potential connections at the event. There’s no shame in making a graceful exit from a conversation so that you can talk to someone new – doing so, in fact, enables you to cast a wider net.
One more thing: whoever you end up talking to, remember to show your interest. Ask questions, maintain eye contact, and link what you learn about them to your own professional experiences.
2. Don’t just talk about work
Nobody goes to a networking event unless they think there’s potential for a career-related opportunity. But that doesn’t mean work has to dominate every conversation you have. Broaden your topics to include not just your company and role, but also things like trends and news related to your industry. Don’t be afraid to get personal, too – you can be successful at a networking event even if movies, music, and sports occupy the majority of your conversations there. Your credentials will show people that you might provide them some professional value, but it’s your personality that will make them actually excited to work with you.
3. Think outside the box
When you do talk about work, try not to limit yourself to your role or company or that of your conversation partners. The people you talk to don’t need to have an open headcount at their company for someone in your role. They can be valuable contacts in other ways. Maybe you’re in content marketing, and you meet someone whose company collects data around industry trends. That person may not have a need to hire you, but they could be a valuable source of data for your infographics, eBooks, and the other content you produce as a content marketer. If a networking event leads to a job offer, that’s of course great – but the event can be a success even if it doesn’t.
4. It’s a networking event – bring business cards!
This one seems obvious. But you’d be surprised how many people, even seasoned professionals, forget to bring business cards to the event. Business cards are cheap and easy to get – it’s hard to think of a reason not to order some. A lack of business cards sends a whole array of wrong messages: that you’re not versed in the basic norms of business etiquette, that you’re not actually all that interested in being at the event, or that you’re not able to verify that the info you’re giving about your career is actually true.
But beyond all this, it simply makes it harder to keep in touch after the event is over – which is ostensibly the reason you’re all there in the first place.
5. Don’t forget to follow up
Speaking of keeping in touch, the value of a networking event disappears as soon as the tables are cleared if you don’t follow up with the connections you make there. Did you meet someone you think could you could start a mutually beneficial relationship with? Find them on LinkedIn. Send them an email. Visit their company’s website. And don’t forget to keep tabs on your own inboxes so you can see if they’ve reached out to you, and respond quickly.
If these tips make networking events seem like some rigid, high-pressure test of your professionalism, they shouldn’t. What many people don’t tell you is that networking events are actually a lot of fun. You might start talking to someone in pursuit of a business connection and end up with a new friend as well. There are often fascinating guest speakers. There’s free food and drinks. Next time you head to an event, treat it more like arriving to a party than arriving at a job interview. Just don’t forget to bring your business cards.