It takes preparation to make the most of your time and make your best impression
Whether you're attending a weekly networking breakfast or an annual tradeshow, planning for a networking event will help you get the most out of that precious little amount of face-to-face time that you get to spend with other business professionals.
Proper preparation consists of:
- Knowing who's going and preparing to meet those who seem to be a particularly good contact for you (or you for them).
- Preparing yourself to make a good first impression.
- Planning ahead so that you are stress-free, in a good mood, and arrive in a timely manner.
Do Your HomeworkI'll get into some more mundane stuff down below, but this is by far the most important thing you can do to prepare for an event. If at all possible, find out who will be attending. Many conferences now have ways for you to network with other attendees in advance. If it's a regular weekly or monthly event, check to see if the membership list is available on their website, or at least the names and businesses of the officers. Check out their websites, and if there are any people you want to make a particular point to meet, drop them an e-mail or call to introduce yourself, tell them you'll be attending, and if they are too arrange to meet them in person. If you can't reach them, jot their name down and the host may be able to introduce you at the event.
Dress Well, Dress DistinctivelyFind out in advance what expected attire for the event is. Try to dress slightly better than the average for the group. Obviously, you don't want to stand out in the extreme, like wearing a tux or an evening gown when it's business casual, but a little stand-out is a good thing. If you can tie it in with your branding, like a Mary Kay representative wearing pink, or perhaps a dress shirt embroidered with your business logo, all the better. Of course, make sure your clothes are in good shape -- pressed and starched if appropriate. The operative word is "distinctive", not "outlandish" (although some people can make that work, too). You don't want to just be remembered as "the guy in the Italian suit with the Rolex", but anything that helps you subtly stand out from the crowd will also help you stand out in their mind the next day.
Women can accessorize with a distinctive scarf, such as a Jan Gipple, or hand-made jewelry. I recommend finding or wearing something from an individual artist that people aren't likely to have seen before.
Be well groomedI wish this could go without saying, but it can't. You don't have to wow people with your appearance, but you don't want anything physically unpleasant or distracting either. If you're going to the event from home, a fresh shower is a great idea. Otherwise, wash your face and hands well. Brush your teeth. Comb your hair. Shave or trim your facial hair. Put on fresh cologne/perfume if you choose, but not a strong one. Clean and trim your nails if needed. If you're a smoker, try not to smoke for at least an hour before the event. For women, makeup is at your discretion, but in a business setting, lighter is better than heavier. Think "natural" not "glamor."
Get Properly EquippedThere are four essentials you should have in hand, purse or pocket: your business cards, a good pen, breath mints and a handkerchief. Whether you love them or hate them, the reality is that business cards are one of the standard trappings of modern business. The pen is for taking notes on the back of business cards. It should be reliable and stylish. Breath mints, strips or spray are a must. Even if you brushed beforehand, one wrong choice at the buffet table can do a number on you. Even if you don't need them, you won't regret having them. The handkerchief serves three purposes: 1) if you must sneeze or blow and can't make it to the restroom, you don't want flimsy tissues, 2) if you spill on yourself you can clean it up with a quick dab of water (paper napkins leave white residue), and 3) if you start to sweat a little, you can dry yourself - again, you don't want to be doing that with a paper napkin.
For the pen, 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.
For your breath, I love Altoids, of course, though I think the Listerine PocketPaks are probably more practical, since they dissolve almost instantly. Did you know that Time magazine named Listerine breath strips a 2002 Invention of the Year?
For the handkerchief, ladies may be able to pull off colored silk, but guys, go for basic white cotton or linen.
Know Exactly Where You're GoingThere's no such thing as fashionably late to a networking event. Get there early and greet others as they arrive. There's also nothing that will frazzle you more right before you arrive than having difficulty finding the venue. Know where you're going and allow plenty of time to get there.
- Be well-rested and do anything else you can to be stress-free, energetic and alert. On the way, listen to music that makes you smile, or perhaps a comedy CD. If you're in a bad mood, find a way to change it.
- Fashion and grooming vary significantly from city to city, culture to culture, and even between industries. The suggestions above are a good starting point, but be observant and look for what the norms are within the groups you attend regularly. Make your personal standard above the norm for the group.