by Lyudmila Bloch, Business Etiquette Coach NYC
We often associate “making friends" with school-age children. However, when at a business-networking event, consider approaching people as potential friends, not just business contacts. You want to find people you share interests with, engage them in a memorable way, and leave them with a positive first impression. After the event you follow up, building and strengthening the relationships. That's very much like friendship. However, business networking events make many people nervous. Here are some ideas to make navigating these events easier.
When you enter the room, look for small groups with an odd number of people—three or five is ideal. Groups this size will be easiest for you to join smoothly and connect with the other participants. In larger groups, you may pass unnoticed amid the throng of voices.
Don't be distracted by refreshments or close friends. Eat before the event so you're not stuck by the refreshment table rather than talking to contacts. While it's more comfortable to spend the evening with close associates, you're not building new relationships when you're hanging out with old friends.
Meeting new people can be awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. Introduce yourself, briefly state what you do, and then ask the other people about themselves. When you know more about other people, it's easier to come up with topics that relate to their business field or interests. Sometimes, it's best simply to listen; just make sure to say enough to be remembered!
It's good to keep the conversation on neutral topics like arts, culture, travel, food, or on business matters; serious subjects like politics and religion can lead to unwanted controversy. Still, you needn't agree with everything another person says just for the sake of making a contact, as long as you're polite and respectful. Be careful to disagree with the idea, rather than the person, and acknowledge the other person's legitimate points even if you disagree with their conclusions.
Identify the kinds of conversations you're most comfortable with: do you prefer to stick to business topics, or do you like small talk? Do you think in broad, general terms, or do you tend to geek out over details? Some conversations may highlight your strongest points as a conversationalist; maybe you've got a great sense of humor or can explain complex ideas in an accessible way. Finding people who like the same topics of conversation that you do makes networking easier.
You won't always be able to take the easy route. Sometimes the people you most need to connect with are difficult or just annoying. Figure out what kinds of people you have a difficult time talking with, and plan ways to handle them. You might wrangle overly opinionated know-it-alls by asking them questions, and overly serious-minded folks by sticking with professional topics. Having a plan makes hard conversations a little easier.
Choose a single skill you want to improve, and set small goals for yourself throughout the event to build on it. To become more assertive, try to join more groups and offer more opinions. Need to work on your charisma? Smile more, follow good old business etiquette rules, and set a goal of having someone ask for your business card. Want to become a better listener? Remember three people's names, and show them that you understand what they're saying.
Business-networking events don't have to be overwhelming. With some practice and attention, you can build the social skills for business-networking events that you need to succeed.