Let’s be clear—networking isn’t easy. There’s nothing more stressful than walking into a room full of strangers with the expectation that you have to approach them. I still feel over-whelmed the first second I walk into a networking event where I don’t know anyone. However, I have learned to be effective at networking with a few very simple strategies.
Your Goal: Walk into the room with a goal—but make sure it’s realistic.
If I’m about to attend a networking event with hundreds of possible prospects, I want to know how much time I’ll have to complete that goal. For example, let’s say there’s a cocktail hour before the event’s speaker comes on. Then after the speech, there’s another half-hour before the event ends. That leaves me with a ninety-minute window of time to network.
In ninety minutes, a realistic goal would be to meet and connect with ten prospects. I make a promise to myself that I won’t go home until I have the contact information of at least ten people. There are no excuses or exceptions here. I don’t particularly enjoy networking, so if I let myself off the hook I know I will never meet my goal.
Warm Up: The first three people will be the most difficult to approach.
Once I’m mentally and socially warmed up, networking becomes much easier. The second I walk into an event, I strike up a conversation with the first person I see. Every fiber of my being is usually telling me to go to the bar, but that’s the worst thing I can do—it will just waste time and keep me stuck inside my own head.
It doesn’t matter if the first person you talk to is the bell-man at the conference center; just strike up a conversation. Follow your first conversation with two more random chats. (These don’t count towards your goal, by the way—cheater.)
Conversation-starter: What you say to start a conversation doesn’t matter; what matters is that you start the conversation.
Having said that, there’s one line that I find to be very effective at striking up conversations at networking events:
“What brings you to this event?”
If you have something else that you like to say, great—but don’t get caught up on what to say.
Ask the first question: After starting a conversation, you always want to try to ask the first question. Of course, if you do get asked what you do before you have the chance, just use your rehearsed Opening Play. But ideally, before you get to talking about what you do, you want to ask the person, “Who are you looking to meet at this event?”
Depending on how the person answers your question, you’ll be able to quickly determine whether this person is worth your valuable time to continue speaking to.
With that question you also automatically shift the focus toward the other person. Remember, most people are terrible at networking and only care to talk about themselves. Also, pay attention to what people tell you so you can make a connection. If you’re the only person making connections at the very start of a networking event, you’ve just moved yourself to the top of the social food chain in everyone’s eyes—people will notice that.
Your Opening Play: Eventually, the person is going to ask you what you do. When this happens you’ll use your Opening Play (some trainers call this your thirty second commercial)—but you’ll tweak it just slightly. My Opening Play at a networking event goes like this:
“I am a sales coach who works with mid-sized* businesses to create a game plan for selling. Today, I’m looking to meet CEOs who are losing too many sales to low-cost competitors, struggling to hit their quarterly revenue goals or getting inconsistent results from their sales teams.”
*I don’t have to tell him about the other types of clients I have, just the types of businesses that would be at this event.
If the person I’m talking to is a CEO with those problems, she’ll tell me so. Then I’ll take her through an abbreviated Disqualification Checklist, which I teach in my sales training programs and sales coaching programs. If she’s qualified, I’ll recommend that we set up a meeting or a phone call. We can exchange cards, too. All that matters is that I have her information. When networking, never just give out cards with the expectation of getting a call back. That’s a total waste of time.
Get Help from Connectors: If you talk to enough people at an event, you will eventually find a “connector.” These are the people who know absolutely everyone of importance. When you come across a connector, add one more step: ask them for their “help.” Here’s exactly what to say:
“I’m new to this group and I’m not great at networking. Do you think you might be able to help me connect with some people?”
I’ve had connectors literally walk me around from CEO to CEO all night, introducing me to everyone.
Be sure to get the connector’s information and follow up with a hand-written card and email. Work to develop relation-ships with these people. If they like you, they can change your world.
Do you have other questions about networking? Please share below.
Written by Marc Wayshak, author of Game Plan Selling and sales trainer in Boston, MA.