I once attended a networking event – sort of a coffee-and-schmooze deal – first thing in the morning on a Tuesday. When I arrived, I was impressed to see a very full house – about 100 people milling about, eating pastries, coffee in hand, visiting with one another. The event was held in an historic landmark building that had been refurbished and was now housing a longtime, multi-generation family-run business that had enjoyed more than a century of success. I was hopeful. Great venue. Great turnout. That’s as far as I got when my personal space was suddenly invaded!
What came next was this:
Hank: Hi! I’m Hank. What’s your name? Here’s my card. Do you have a card on you? I sell transportation services to small businesses. Does your business ever need transportation services?
Alana: Hello. I’m Alana. Here’s my card. Yes, we do use transportation services and already have a provider with which we are very happy.
Hank: OK, great! Well, I will give you a call and send you a package of information. Need move on now. Want to meet a few more business operators before the event is over.
Whoa! More than an introduction, that felt like a hit-and-run! I suppose to Hank’s credit(?) (and, by the way, the name and line of business have been changed to spare poor Hank from embarrassment), he did send over a package of information, and followed up with several emails, and called me on numerous occasions. Here’s the deal: I am unlikely to ever seek Hank’s services. For him, networking is a drive-by sport. He is obviously on a mission to collect as many business cards as possible and call that success. To me, however, a massive business card collection does not lead generation make, let alone lasting, enduring, meaningful relationships!
The point of this sad, sad saga? I am often asked to comment on how to maximize participation in large networking events. For many folks, including myself, this is one of the least preferable ways to network. It seems impersonal and, as I sometimes describe these sorts of affairs, they can feel sort of like the “meat market” of networking (a la my experience with Hank). That said, they are important and necessary and can be, when done right, very productive.
With that in mind, let’s spend some time getting ready for these large events or “meet-ups.” Not everyone who is good at one-on-one networking is naturally good at or likes going out to networking functions where they may be walking into a room filled with strangers. If you dread these events, try to remind yourself that not only are they often professionally useful, they can also be fun if approached the right way. And who knows? You might make a new friend or two.
So how should you approach networking events to get the most bang for your buck, even if you are one of those people who dread them?
Step one is to carefully select the events you choose to attend. Don’t feel compelled to be at every event to which you’re invited. I like to think about networking events in the following terms:
- Why should I attend this event?
- What is the purpose of attending? Am I seeking new referrals or new contacts for my existing professional network?
- Is this the sort of gathering where I should be seen, and where I will meet connectors and influencers? If so, would it be good for building my profile?
- Am I looking for the support of my peer group, or to collect as much information as possible about my industry or my community?
- Does it just sound like a cool event that I could attend with a friend, and we’d both have a great time?
Once you’ve figured out your intention for attending the event or meet-up and assessed whether the event actually offers what you are looking for, put it on your calendar! If you are nervous about attending alone, ask a friend who also might get something out of participation in the event to join you. But if you do go with someone, be sure you don’t just stand in a corner together all night. Fan out, reach out, and connect.
This is an important topic – in fact, Chapter Seven, “Step Outside Your Comfort Zone,” of my book, Coffee Lunch Coffee: A Practical Field Guide for Master Networking, is devoted fully to this issue. Given how unappealing most of us think these types of events can be, I will spend the next few posts providing some perspective that I believe you will find useful. Tomorrow: Tips for getting past the awkwardness of large events to make them fun and productive.