Making the Most of Networking Events - How to Work a Room

How to maximize your effectiveness for that precious little bit of face-to-face time with other businesspeople

You've chosen the right event, prepared by researching the group and expected attendees, and pre-contacted some of the attendees. You have your business cards and your self-introduction ready, and now you're off to the event. How do you make the most of that face-to-face time in a room full of dozens or perhaps hundreds of people?

Let's be clear about what you are trying to accomplish, and that will help determine your actions for the evening:

1. Be memorable, in a good way. Have you ever attended an event, gotten someone's card, and when you look at it later you can't remember anything about them? You don't want to be one of those people to others.

2. Collect information. Giving out your business cards isn't nearly as important as collecting others' and making notes, either written or mentally, that will allow you to follow up effectively.

3. Create value for others. This is the essence of networking. Look for opportunities to be of service, and you'll benefit in the long run, as well.

Make an Entrance

There are three people that you always want to be sure to network with at an event: the speaker, the event host/organizer, and the person doing registration and sign-in. The person at the front door sees everybody, including their name, and also is usually aware where the host is and can point you in their direction. Plus it just starts you off on a positive note as you enter the room. You're not a movie star hitting the red carpet. Your goal isn't to make a grand entrance, but to leave a wake of happy people behind you.

As Susan RoAne, author of How to Work a Room, suggests in her article, Learn to Talk to Anyone in 10 Minutes or Less, "The physical act of walking into the event may be the hardest part, especially if you don’t know a soul. So take a deep breath, stand tall, and walk into the center of the room, rather than stopping just inside the door to clog traffic or bee-lining for a dark corner."

If the host isn't available, or once you've talked with them, scan the room for people you already know to start mingling - don't just head straight for the bar, the buffet, or your seat. If you don't know anyone, find a high-traffic area or place where people seem to be congregating and make your way there.

Introduce Yourself

Introducing yourself to an individual and introducing yourself to the group are two totally different things. If you have the opportunity to introduce yourself to the whole group, or even a large dinner table, then you'll want to use your "pitch": a concise (25 words or less) and memorable introduction that describes both what you do and how it benefits others. But one-on-one, that can get in the way of natural conversation. You want to describe what you do in a memorable way, but don't go off into the benefits - you'll sound like a bad salesman, rather than someone that is there to learn from the program and build relationships with the other attendees.

Making Conversation

Small talk is highly under-rated. In this kind of setting, it is how you build rapport and discover common ground. While you may want people to remember your business, being remembered as a "brilliant conversationalist" certainly isn't a bad thing. Some networking gurus recommend asking questions that get the other person doing all the talking. It's true that people do love to talk about themselves, but good conversation is a two-way street. But if all you do is ask questions, what do you bring to the table? You want to create value and contribute from your experience, as well.

For some good thought-provoking questions that go beyond just "So what do you do?", Brian Hilliard offers Three Easy Questions to Help You Stand Out. Also take a look at Susan RoAne's Big Deal About Small Talk, SCHMOOZE and WIN: “Small Talk” Your Way To Success, and other free articles on conversation and mingling. And if you haven't ever read it, pick up a copy of Dale Carnegie's classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Collect Cards, Make Notes

Notice I didn't say a thing about giving out cards. The cards you give out aren't nearly as important as the ones you take in. Sure, give out cards if people ask for them, or if you want to reinforce your conversation, but more importantly, get cards from the people you want to follow up with.

You'll also want to have a pen handy and make some brief notes on the back of their card. This will help you remember them, because a card alone often doesn't the next day. Secondly, it's an opportunity to make a commitment and keep it. Often in conversations we agree to do something like make an introduction or send some information, but then fail to -- not because we're blowing the other person off, but because we simply forget. Your stack of cards with notes becomes your to-do list the next day.

You want a gel or rollerball that writes reliably on business cards. Get a retractable so you don't have to fidget with a cap. I like something with a grip and it doesn't hurt if it looks good too, like my personal favorite, the Pilot Dr. Grip.

Say Goodbye

Your exit is as important as your entrance. Don't just disappear. Thank the host and the speaker. Touch base with the people you spoke to earlier in the event and briefly reaffirm any commitments you've made.