As part of my efforts to be better at Grown-Ass Lady Stuff, I’m trying to learn more about Businessy Things in a way that doesn’t make me want to take a bath afterward. So in the past year, I’ve gone to a handful of networking events.
The biggest difference between networking and hanging out is that you can hang out with someone without an agenda, but when people network, it’s almost obvious that they always have one. And that’s where the typical skeeze factor comes in. It’s common to feel like the person who’s talking to you only cares whether you can hire him or point him in the direction of a new job.
So I’m going to tell you about what I’ve learned about how to attend a networking event without the implicit “What have you done for me lately?” attitude.
Show up with business cards. Assume you’re going to meet at least five neat people at your networking event. Now assume you want to get their card without giving them one of your own. Super-weird, right?
So getcha some. Here you go – under thirty bucks [that's not an affiliate link, dudes...'cause I love you that much]. They don’t have to be glittery, holographic, or interactive. They just have to tell people how to get hold of you. True story: I had signed up for a networking event and ordered new business cards, but they didn’t arrive in time. So instead of showing up without them, I went to work with some cardstock and a fancy pen. My handmade cards were definitely less professional than the cards that I eventually got, but more than one person I met that night became a client of mine.
Always have something to ask. If you don’t, the conversation will dry up after a few minutes, and then you have a few awful, awkward moments that are really hard to recover from. How long have they been doing what they do now? Do they like their coworkers? How do they choose to spend their time outside of work? In fact, this brings me to my next point…
Talk about non-work stuff too. Some people might be sort of uncomfortable bringing this up, but I say go for it. Yeah, we’re probably all at the event to find work opportunities, but at the end of the day, we’re all people, and knowing something about others besides what they do for money makes it all more interesting. These are the moments when you learn that the insurance salesman has a running hobby and he’s completed three marathons in the last year, or the graphic designer runs a music blog that puts out an awesome monthly mixtape. [Pro tip: Alex Franzen wrote an awesome article on stuff to ask people that isn't "So, what do you do?". Read it. Use it. It's awesome.]
Shut the @#$& up. Extroverts get a bad rap for wanting to talk about themselves all the time, but honestly, everyone does it. Introverts included. A person who’s capable of shutting up and letting others talk is so rare that people automatically perceive them as smarter, less impulsive, and more responsible. So ask your thoughtful questions, and then shut your face. If you learn to do it well, you’ll be allowing your new acquaintance to do what everyone loves to do best – talk about themselves.
Actually listen. Shutting up isn’t enough. Actually take note of things that they’re saying. Oh, they went to Xavier? Cool. Did they see the proverbial Big Game? Oh, what’s that? They’re interested in education policy? Awesome. My dad was an educator for thirty years. Maybe he knows someone that does policy work and we can put them in touch. [Psst: I wrote an awesome post about how to be a better listener. Revisit, if necessary.]
Save the soundbites for the elevator speeches. Talk like a real person. There’s a lot to be said for taking your work seriously and being able to discuss it in a professional way, but way too many people confuse “sounding professional” with “sounding like a robot”. When people ask me what I do, I never say anything about “custom small business solutions for maximizing reach in the digital sphere.” What I say is: “I help small businesses, nonprofits, and individuals share their awesome work with the entire Internet.” It’s a little unspecific, but it sounds like the way I actually talk, so I feel a lot less uncomfortable saying it. If someone’s interested in learning more about the specifics, I can go into more detail. Or ask about projects they’re doing where I might be able to help.
Make an exit gracefully. Sometimes your social anxiety gets the best of you, or maybe you just don’t want to hear an MLM pitch or a business plan about how someone can help you “revolutionize” social media for your small business [because it's not 2007 anymore, and you're already on Twitter, thankyouverymuch]. Whatever the case, you have to get out of there. So, duck out saying you think you see your coworker across the room – imagine that! Or, go refill your wine glass. [Because drinking more eases any awkward situation.]
Follow up like you mean it. After you attend networking events and exchange cards, you’ll probably get a spate of generic “Hi, it was really nice to meet you” emails from people you may or may not hear from ever again. Don’t send emails like this. Instead, find something unique to say. Forward them an article that you think might be interesting for them. Send them an invite to a cool, relevant event coming up. If you know someone in their field, ask if they’d like to be introduced. And actually respond if they write back. [Pro tip: Peter Shankman wrote a great post on not being full of shit. Part of it involves regular daily check-ins with your contacts. He's got a fishbowl full of business cards from people he's met, and every day he fishes out a few and writes a "Hey, what's up?" letter. Do this. Really.]
Have you been to any networking events? Any awesome/horrific/hilarious stories? What’s worked for you?