Many cringe at the prospect of networking at a business event. Although the practice can be awkward, especially for those who are shy or introverted, networking is an important skill that enables one to establish valuable professional and personal connections.
Conferences, lectures, and business-related happy hours provide fertile ground for industry networking. L&D leaders will have the chance to perfect their chops at DevLearn 2017, The eLearning Guild’s annual event. To make the most of this upcoming opportunity, we offer the following guide to effective business networking.
Getting started with networking
Making small talk is a tall order for some people, yet the ability to initiate and carry on a conversation with a stranger is an important skill to master. To begin, establish eye contact, extend your hand, smile, and introduce yourself. If you have met before but sense that the person does not remember you, don’t be intimidated. You now have the chance to make a second impression.
If you want to create a memorable impression at a business event, you must find a way to stand out. One way to do this is to ask intriguing questions. Avoid banal inquiries such as How are you doing? or Isn’t this weather terrific? They are conversation killers.
“A good conversation starter can transform an awkward, stilted conversation into an interesting, enjoyable discussion,” writes Aja Frost, who shares 125 conversation starters for virtually any situation. According to Frost, the best conversation starters are open-ended, non-routine, professional, and relevant.
Ashley Fidel believes the most common icebreaker, So, what do you do?, fails to jump-start meaningful interaction. On TheMuse.com, she suggests some alternatives. None focus on work, which is intentional.
“I have found that my best professional relationships start with a casual conversation and genuine connection. Then, once you’ve established a friendly tone, conversation about jobs, opportunities, and professional advice tends to flow naturally,” she writes.
Fidel recommends experimenting with different openers to discover which elicit the best responses. Topics she finds successful include vacations, current events, books, and television shows.
If the person is wearing a badge, a common practice at conventions, check to see if their company or hometown is printed beneath their name. If so, offer a clever comment or observation. Perhaps you recently read an interesting article about the company. Or their local sports team is having a spectacular season. This can serve as excellent fodder for conversation. So can a unique piece of jewelry or clothing worn by the person. Drop them a compliment, and follow it up with a question. (“Your Pikachu socks are really fun. Are you a fan of Pokémon Go?”)
If you spotted the individual at a lecture earlier that morning, use that as a springboard to connect. Instead of asking, Did you like the session on mobile learning?, a question that can be dismissed with a simple yes or no response, pose a question that could segue into a meaningful discussion. For example: I saw you this morning at the lecture. How are you planning to implement the presenter’s ideas in your work environment?
In general, ask open-ended questions in order to give the other person the opportunity to share something. Likewise, don’t be reluctant to reveal something about yourself. Be mindful, however, that business events are not therapy sessions. Save the deep or provocative issues for another time.
Keep the tone upbeat and light. While most people networking in a business setting automatically default to work-related topics, it is fine to converse about matters outside the scope of the conference. Steer clear of polarizing subjects such as politics or religion. Instead, find common ground in arenas that everyone can relate to, such as food, film, hobbies, and popular culture. Geography-related questions are also good conversation starters. (This is my first time visiting Las Vegas. What restaurants do you recommend?)
If you yourself are asked the dreaded What do you do for a living? question, don’t simply provide a job title. Prepare a snappy or funny retort that will encourage your new acquaintance to dig deeper. If the conversation drifts, refocus it on the other person. Most people enjoy talking about themselves; allow them to take the lead.
When networking, avoid rambling or personally monopolizing the conversation, and be aware of social cues. If the other person repeatedly checks their watch or scans the room, bring the interaction to a close. Remember that networking is a give and take, so listen carefully. This will enable you to come up with more thoughtful follow-up questions, and thereby build greater camaraderie.
More networking tips for business events
The goal of business networking is to make new contacts, yet inevitably you will run into former contacts. Always be polite and professional. “No matter what terms you ended on, you don’t want to pretend like you didn’t see your former manager over there by the cheese table,” writes Stacey Lastoe in a blog post. “By approaching her with a pleasantry and more, you demonstrate class and character.”
Groups present a different dynamic. If a group is immersed in an animated conversation, don’t interrupt or force yourself into their circle. If you recognize someone in the group, unobtrusively attract their attention. Hopefully they will welcome you into the conversation.
Planning ahead can pay off. In a post on Bizzabo.com, Siobhan Becker suggests using the official event app or social networking tools such as LinkedIn to research attendees you would like to connect with. Send out messages in advance of the conference, with a specific invitation to meet up at the event.
Some final thoughts
One of the reasons people loath networking at business events is that they worry they will be perceived as boring. Aja Frost points out that this fear can be overcome. “Just like you could learn to be a better leader or more effective negotiator, you could learn to be more engaging,” she writes in a post about how to make yourself more interesting.
Her suggestions include building up a mental repository of trivial fun facts, and actively pursuing hobbies that you would not normally be drawn to. She recommends listening to podcasts, reading articles, and attending TED Talks on topics outside of your expertise and comfort zone. You will undoubtedly learn something new, which you can then share at your next networking event.