Networking events are a crucial way to meet new people, reinforce relationships with existing contacts and usually learn something new about your industry. While there are so many positive aspects to networking events, they also can consume a huge amount of time and resources if you aren't judicious about which ones you attend.
Once you've determined that an event is worth your time and money, you also need to make sure that you have done as much advance preparation as possible to ensure that you are making the most of your time there. Here are five things to do before a networking event to help ensure your success.
1) Determine why you are attending
Never sign up for a networking event without first knowing what you hope to accomplish. The reasons can be varied:
- an interest in the subject matter of the presentation;
- a desire to make more contacts in your industry -- whether as prospective clients or job possibilities; or
- a goal of getting to know a colleague in your own company outside of a work setting.
Determining what you hope to get out of it -- whether it's a few new leads or background for an upcoming presentation -- will inform your behavior once you arrive.
2) Find Out Who's Going to Be There
In an ideal world, you could get a list of attendees, so you know whom you most want to meet. This is especially important if you have one certain individual you want to meet, or if you are hoping to find prospects at a specific company or with a specific job title. How do you find this out? The best way, of course, is to be a volunteer at the event or with the group. If you haven't already established that connection, see if the program organizer will send you a list. Often they will understand the reason for your request and be happy to help. Make sure to express your appreciation.
3) Do Some Background Research on the Names That Interest You
With the tools we have at our disposal today, there is no reason not to be relatively informed about who's who. Check out their LinkedIn profile, which will also show you whether they are linked to someone you might know. Do a quick search for their name on Google to see if they have been in any recent news articles that you could reference. Make sure you know what they look like, so you can identify them when you see them without an awkward name tag look. This is particularly important if the goal you set for yourself is to meet one or two specific contacts.
4) Make Advance Contact with the Speaker, if That's Your Goal
If your main reason for attending is to glean data from the speaker for professional development, contact them ahead of time by email to introduce yourself. Let them know you are attending the upcoming meeting and that you'd be interested in talking with them after. If you’re gathering material to share with colleagues, be sure and let them know that. Making advance contact means that when you arrive and introduce yourself, they will make a special effort to greet you. And here's a little insider secret: they might really appreciate it! Sometimes speakers feel as uncomfortable as attendees at an event where they don't know anyone! Having immediate access to the speaker can also make you look like you are in the know.
5) Be Ready with Some Conversation Starters
Take a few moments to run through ways that you can start conversations with others; or industry news that you can reference. Rehearse your "elevator speech" as well, that sound bite that you will use when someone asks who you are, what you do, why you are there. Really make sure that you have created an impactful statement. If you're job hunting, have a short response prepared, such as "I'm interested in making contacts in the human resources field because I have recently decided to switch industries. I've spent 4 years in the technology field but am looking forward to finding out more about this industry for a potential career change." Or whatever the case may be. If you are currently employed, don't just give your company name and title, but explain a little bit about what you do. "I sell advertising to local companies who want to reach listeners of country station KJWW." The goal is to give enough information that it's easy for the person to catch the conversational ball and ask the next question.
6) Think Through Your Attire
If you’re coming straight from work either after the day is over or during lunch, take special care to dress appropriately that day. Even if your workplace is casual, the event may not be and it's not a bad idea to step up your wardrobe a touch to give a professional first appearance. And don't forget to bring business cards. If you are job hunting, make sure that you have professional cards printed up with your LinkedIn address; but more importantly, make sure you are prepared to accept their cards. Then the ball is in your court, rather than theirs, to follow up on any promising interactions.
7) Get There Early
Make sure you know exactly where you are going and where to park, etc. Aim to allow about 10 extra minutes for any traffic or parking snafus. Getting there early allows you to set yourself up to survey the room and take advantage of meeting people as they arrive. Sometimes it can feel awkward to walk into a room when everyone is already deep into conversation. A caveat is to not get there too early and run the risk of making the host feel hurried. Aim to arrive 5 minutes after the stated "networking time" (not the "start time" for the program). If most guests haven't arrived, take a few minutes to chat with the host and peruse the name tags, if you haven't been able to get an attendee list. A name might jump out at you as someone you want to be sure to meet.
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Whenever you commit to attending a networking event, remember that you are committing to improving your career.
Make sure that you are making the most of your efforts by determining in advance what you want to get out of it -- and taking the steps to set yourself up for success.