You get off the elevator, sign in at the registration table, and walk into the banquet room. You scan the room. There’s a sea of people in front of you and very few of the faces are recognizable. The ones that are familiar are already locked into conversation. You have two choices – stand against the wall and wait for this thing to end or get in there and initiate conversation with a bunch of strangers.
If you get anxious at simply hearing the words “networking event,” don’t worry. You’re not alone. Even for the most hardcore extroverts, networking events can be difficult and downright uncomfortable.
So if everyone feels awkward at these things, why do they persist? Well, the truth is that even in our digital age, there’s still no connection as strong as the in-person meeting. Something about seeing someone’s face, shaking their hand, and looking them in the eye helps to forge a bond than could never be created over email or social media.
That’s the bad news. If you’re in sales, networking events will likely always be a part of the scene. Now here’s the good news. They don’t have to be this bad. In fact, if you can overcome your fear and anxiety, you might actually find that networking events are a great place to establish and build relationships and expand your circle of connections. They can even be fun!
If you’ve worked with me in the past or read enough of my stuff, you know that I’m process oriented. No matter what the task, your chances of success are always higher if you have a proven process to guide your decisions. Networking events are no exception.
So here’s my simple five-step process to guide you through your next networking event. Try it out and see if it reduces your anxiety and gets you better results:
Step #1: Set a goal.
As a sales professional, goals should be an integral part of everything you do…including networking events. Set a goal for what you want to accomplish at the event. Do you want to meet five new contacts? Great. Do you want to introduce yourself to one of three people whom you know will be at the event? Awesome. Do you want to stay for one hour and have meaningful conversation the whole time? Go for it!
Having a goal is important because it gives you a sense of purpose in the event. It takes away the feeling of, “Well, I’m here. What now?”
Also, it may make the event feel less overwhelming. Intimidated by a three-hour networking event? No problem. Hit your goal in 20 minutes and then move on to something else. There’s nothing saying you have to stay at the event the entire time.
Think of reasonable goals that you can actually accomplish and let those goals be your guide.
Step #2: Listen first, then speak.
People love to talk about themselves. That’s a fact. So indulge them and initiate conversation by asking a question. And don’t use questions that can be answered by “yes” or “no.” Instead, ask them questions that will spark conversation.
At most events, attendees have a tag with their name, company, and maybe even their position. That should be enough information to think of a good conversation starter. Here are a few good ones:
- “You work at __________? I’ve always heard great things about the company. How do you like working there?”
- “I see [company name] in the news all the time. What projects are you working on right now?”
- “How did you get into your field? I find it so interesting.”
- “I know a few people at [company name]. What’s your role there?”
- “Where are you from?”
Center your attention on the other person and deflect attention away from yourself. They’ll likely exit the conversation with a positive feeling and will be more likely to respond to your follow-ups because you have something specific you can reference based on your conversation.
Step #3: Keep it brief when discussing yourself.
After you open conversation with a question and the other person discusses their self, it’s likely they’ll follow up with a question to you. Remember, brevity is your friend. Get straight to the point and answer their question.
This isn’t the time to make the sale. Don’t talk about your new product. Don’t speak glowingly about yourself. Be friendly and be yourself, but most of all, be brief.
For example, the standard question of “What do you do?” should require no more than a two- or three-sentence answer.
“I work in middle-market lending. So I help small-to-mid-size companies get the funding they need to expand and reach their goals.”
“We provide VoIP services, which means we help companies increase their communication capabilities and reduce their costs.”
“We make functional art inspired by nature with a social conscience.” (This is the WHY of a furniture manufacturing company)
Just say what you do in plain English and in as few words as necessary. No jargon. No unnecessary salesmanship. Stay focused on the conversation, establishing a relationship, and not selling anything. Remember, they buy you first. If you talk for too long, you can count on the fact that the person is already thinking about what they’ll say next or, even worse, how they can get out of the conversation.
Step #4: Take it easy with the business cards.
What’s the value of handing out 100 business cards if 90 percent of them end up in a trash can? Everyone has met the person at a networking event who is handing out business cards like they’re promotional flyers. Don’t be that person.
If your conversation has sparked interest, the other person will ask for your card. If they don’t and you want to give them a card, you can try to initiate the request by asking for their card. If they still don’t ask for your card, then they simply don’t want your card.
Focus on quality instead of quantity. Having three good, meaningful conversations with people who you could partner with in the future is lightyears ahead of collecting a bunch of random cards and handing out a handful of yours. Don’t judge your success by how many cards you’ve given out. Judge your success based on the depth of your conversations.
Step #5: Send a sincere and specific follow-up.
The real magic from a networking event happens after the event is over. A few days later, send a follow-up email to the people you met. Do not send a form email to everyone. Instead, write a brief, personal note to each person.
The email should touch on something you discussed at the event. For example….
“Good luck with the [project they’re working on]. Sounds exciting!”
“Congrats again on your recent promotion to Senior Vice President. I’m sure you’ll have a ton of success in that position!”
Then ask for a next step. It could be a get-together for coffee. It might be an introduction to a mutual connection. It may just be an agreement to help each other out in the future.
One of the best next actions is to offer unsolicited help. Maybe you know of an older connection who could benefit from meeting with your new connection. Maybe you have a client who could benefit from the new connection’s services.
Offer to open up your address book or make an introduction. The best way to get is to give.
If you’d like to improve your networking skills or even your overall in-person communication skills, let’s talk about it. I’ve helped thousands of sales professionals just like you become more confident and effective communicators. Let’s connect today and schedule a free, no-commitment coaching session.
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