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Let's start with preparation. Dress up smart casual. Prepare business cards. Make a clear vision of what you want to achieve. Yes, it's nice to leave with 200 business cards but if all of them are useless, you failed. Why are you going to that event? Find investors? Find investments? Find clients? Find mentors? Mentees? New job? Are you going there to headhunt?
From which another question arises. Who do you want to meet? Try to be as specific as possible. If you have a chance to see the list of people who are coming, do research. Find out who they are, what they do and how they look. (I love you, LinkedIn, my stalking friend). If possible, memorize those three to five people you really want to meet and learn something about them—ideally something interesting or what you have in common. And try to stick to the plan.
Now here it comes. The day, N (like networking). You got it, right? What now? You reach the venue, register, check out your coat. Feeling weird and uncomfortable? Yeah. I know. You're not the only one.
1. Everybody hates networking events.
Lesson one—nobody wants to be there either. Most often the room is filled with people who are also not feeling comfortable. Just breath. They are all just people like you. Stop thinking about them as "connections" or "dollar bills," but think about them as humans. And the best way to comfort people is by talking to them. There you go!
Look around. Can you see any approachable person? Go to them. Compliment their shoes, hairstyle, choice of drink. Don't hide behind insecurity. Start a talk with, "Is that also your first time? No? How does it usually go here?"
2. Don't be interesting, be interested.
After you, finally, chit chat with some of your victims (did I just destroy the previous tip?) about the weather and stuff, feel free to talk about their business. Don't be shy. Those people came here for the same reason as you. Not to make small talks about where they're planning to spend the holidays.
Great starters include, "So what made you come here?" If they have a badge with their company, use that, "Wow, XY company? What do you do there?" Or my personal favorite, "So, Mike, what's your story?" I admit, the last question is for a little longer discussion. Perhaps a little later. When you feel comfortable and the person seems to be interested in talking to you as well.
The important part here is to ask questions. Be interested in what those people do. It has three awesome advantages. First, you can get to know soon enough if the person you're talking to is the one you wanted to engage a conversation with. Second, you can learn something new and interesting. Third, people love talking about themselves so they'll probably like you because of that.
3. Approach smaller groups.
How to actually get somebody to talk to? This might be the difficult part. Well, if you have a concrete plan on who to talk to, go to them directly—better sooner than later. Even if they are in a big crowd of people. Fight to get into the crowd, listen to the person who's currently speaking for a while. Once you get why they're talking, say one short sentence reacting on that topic or (even better) ask a follow-up question! And then ask another question to the person you came to talk to. Congratulations, you caught him into a discussion!
If you don't know the people at the event, choose a smaller group of people. I like to grab a coffee/snack/drink and go to a 70-80 percent occupied table (sounds a bit too specific, right?). Standing or seated. Doesn't matter. Open with, "Hi, would you mind if I join you here?" Then they usually ask about you as a newcomer. Or you can start asking them. Shake hands and continue with a discussion.
4. Take it easy on business cards.
Yes and no. They are super useful if you need to follow up. (And you probably should.) If you meet somebody who you'd like to talk in the future again, exchange the business cards. My personal tip, take a pen with you and write on the card a little note so you know who that person was or what you talked about. You might end up with 20 cards not knowing who was who.
The "no" comes to giving your cards to anybody you talk to. If there is potential, feel free to. But if the conversation went nowhere and it wasn't a good match, don't give it. Same with the cards coming from random people. Put them to a special folder so they won't mix with the meaningful ones.
As for your own business cards, if you go there as a representative of your company, bring your company business cards. If you go there on your own, feel free to give away your personal ones. I like those with photos because it helps me better to remember the person. But there are people who dislike it, so it's up to you.
5. The Curse of the Elevator Pitch
Elevator pitch is actually saying what your business is in about in two to three sentences. You gotta prepare for this. Rehearse. Draft it on a paper. Ask a friend if he would understand what you do if you say your pitch. Ideally, ask a friend who didn't know what you do initially.
Keep in mind that the other person has no idea what you're doing so try to use a simple language. Perhaps an analogy. Like "Post-its, but online"—Trello, or "House renting but even for the short term"—Airbnb, etc. Because, "A platform enabling people to feel at home even in during travels," sounds exciting but confusing at the same time.
A lot of people might disagree with me here, but I wouldn't start a discussion by talking about myself and my business unless I'm asked to. I'd always start asking people to talk about themselves. What they do. At first, they'll have a better first impression of you. Second, what they say can help you to explain later what you do, using their language and set into their life. Just to demonstrate:
"Oh, me? What do I do? Well, you are a manager, right? So I help people like you, who probably travel so much, to have a comfort of home during their business trips. So, for you, instead of staying in a hotel, you can stay in a personal flat. Feeling like home."—Airbnb again.
6. Use your time well.
Time flies. You won't even realize it and it's over. Use your time well. If you find yourself talking to a person who wasn't on you "wanted list," move on. Excuse yourself. Go have a coffee. Find new people to talk to. If the person is interesting, yet not matching my networking criteria, I ask if he/she wants to meet somebody new and take him/her with me to join a new crowd. How nice!
After the Event...
Once you leave the event, go through your new cards and prepare a follow-up. You can reach out to them the next day thanking them for the nice chat you had last night. And if you agreed on any next steps, feel free to mention them.
Practice makes perfect. So go to as many networking events as you can to practice. Find your style. Stick to it. Be genuinely interested in the people you talk to. They'll appreciate it and will be more willing to listen to you.