If you've made it to the doorway, you probably already understand most of the "rules" of networking - dress well, make eye contact, limit alcohol consumption, ask people about themselves, etc., so let's focus on why you're there and how you can walk into the room with confidence.
People who don't network tend to underestimate the willingness of other people to network. Everyone in the room came to meet people, to meet you in fact. You might not think so because you've prepared your top five targets and you assume you aren't on anyone else's list. But a truly successful networker understands that there aren't "right" and "wrong" people to spend your time with, because you never know who you may find in their network or they in yours.
Making and Accepting Introductions
Don't be nearsighted - it's not all about who you know, it's about who your network knows, and more importantly, what connections can be made. In my experience, those truly meaningful and fruitful introductions come from people who know and trust me, because they are willing to stick their neck out and say I'm someone worth getting to know. So, make sure you spend the time to build rapport with your current network! Be generous with your own network as well. Making useful introductions among your colleagues will strengthen your relationships, which will then support even more connections.
Trying New Activities
Industry groups, and CREW in particular, are giving us more and more opportunities to cultivate connections into relationships, and good relationships are based on authenticity. Get creative. Consider unique events outside of the traditional happy hour and those where the focus is on a shared learning experience such as a self-defense class. Practicing an upper cut is a much more authentic experience than sharing a glass of wine. This also exposes you to new activities (CREW DC has offered trapeze classes and improv classes!) which you might get into socially, thus broadening your network even further.
Another dividend gained from broadening your network is that, over time, the room is no longer filled with strangers. Conversation begets conversation, so if there is even one person you can start talking to, you're halfway there!
"Be generous with your own network. Making useful introductions among your colleagues will strengthen your relationships, which will then support even more connections."
Don't forget to follow-up with people you meet. Even a quick "it was great to meet you" email will go a long way in spurring conversation the next time you see each other. Try to incorporate something from your conversation that helps make your time together memorable. The best follow-up email I've ever received was from a gentleman I sat next to at an awards gala and we contemplated how many of the desserts to try. The next day he emailed me two sentences: "Emily, it was great to meet you yesterday. FYI, I had another dessert when I got home..." and you can bet the next time we see each other we will have an easy conversation starter!
My "To Be" List
- Be yourself
- Be passionate
- Be honest
- Be present
There have been times when I've allowed myself to get caught up in a networking persona that isn't true to who I am. I try to keep the momentum going from these encounters, but I struggle to turn them into meaningful relationships. Don't get so distracted looking for your targets or doing all the right things that you forget about having an actual conversation. The magic in networking comes from being open minded and enjoying yourself. Don't ruin it by sticking to the rules.
As with everything in life, practice makes perfect.