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Networking: Insider Tips

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Use these networking strategies to strengthen connections at the next meeting you attend.

When George Perlov accepted a friend’s invitation to attend a Women in Communications meeting in Manhattan, he wasn’t sure how much would be in it for him. Sure, the speaker was addressing childhood obesity and the media—an area he had been very focused on during his time at the Ad Council—but other than a keen interest in the topic, he didn’t think much else would come of it.

Perlov, an independent consultant who helps organizations with social-cause campaigns, found himself one of about three men completely surrounded by women.

“I caught the eye of one of the other men, and asked him how it feels to be in a roomful of women,” Perlov recalls. “Special,” the guy replied with a chuckle. After that icebreaker, the pair got to talking, and now that special guy is one of Perlov’s clients. “It just shows that something you think is totally out of your league can be worthwhile.”

“Be prepared” may be the Boy Scout’s motto, but it should also be the mantra of successful networkers, says Andrea R. Nierenberg, author of four books on networking and relationship marketing, and founder of the Nierenberg Group, which specializes in executive training and development. “From the moment you arrive at the airport, you are networking,” explains Nierenberg, who was once hired in the ladies’ room at a conference. “You are always on.”

Perlov understands that firsthand—his very existence as an entrepreneur is dependent on his ability to network. To ensure he meets the people who can drive his business forward, he makes a list beforehand—sometimes even contacting event organizers to secure an attendee list in advance. “Unless you make those connections, business doesn’t happen,” he says.

Technology is making networking at meetings easier, but it still comes down to doing your homework.

Do your homework

That advance legwork is critical to networking success, Nierenberg says, explaining, “If you don’t plan and think about what your goals are, it’s much harder to make connections.”

And making connections is what it’s all about. “People want to do business with those they know and like,” says Bonnie Wallsh, chief strategist at meeting management consultancy Bonnie Wallsh Associates in Charlotte, N.C. “So meeting face-to-face is important.”

Skip the hard sell

But it’s not about selling—at least not at first, says Nierenberg. “Most people think networking is about trying to do business. It’s not about being pushy, it’s about establishing rapport.”

To that end, Nierenberg advises planning some icebreaker questions ahead of time—and setting a reasonable goal for the number of new connections you’d like to make—say, five to seven. Perhaps even try to track down those contacts beforehand and schedule an appointment. “With resourcefulness, you can get just about any email address,” she says.

“The magic is before the event,” agrees Eric Ly, CEO of Presdo, Inc., a company that creates social networks for events, integrating the attendee database with LinkedIn and Facebook. “When we’re actually at an event, there are so many distractions.”

Presdo Match is one of a number of new technologies that make it easier to connect at a meeting. Others include Poken, a handheld device supplied to attendees that enables them to exchange electronic business cards by bumping devices, and WhoozNear, an app that shares little bits of information about people standing nearby, based on questions asked by event organizers.

Harnessing technology

“Traditional networking is changing, based on new social-media tools,” says Michael Chong, sponsorship chair for the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab (VLAB), a nonprofit networking collaborative for technology entrepreneurs. “It has so much potential to enhance the face-to-face experience.”

VLAB has been using Presdo Match for about a year to improve networking opportunities for attendees. “It’s a good way to inspire and motivate people to interact before the event,” Chong says. Among other things, VLAB uses the technology to create interest groups people can join prior to the event, enabling them to more easily find each other during networking sessions. While the software does create an exciting online community, Chong is quick to note that it’s no replacement for the face-to-face aspect. “There is no beating the ability to shake hands and see facial expressions,” he says.

Establishing rapport

While research and technology can help identify the most useful connections, making the most of the limited time at a meeting is just as important. “You can’t be a wallflower and be a good networker,” Perlov says, admitting that he is naturally pretty outgoing.

But even if you’re not a natural extrovert, meeting people doesn’t have to be hard: Ask a few icebreaker questions, then let the other person do most of the talking. “Stick with the 80–20 rule,” Nierenberg says. “That’s 80 percent listening and 20 percent talking. And try to avoid MEGO—My Eyes Glaze Over. Most people do all the talking then wonder why no one follows up with them.”

Try not to chat with colleagues, Wallsh advises. “Even salespeople will sit with people they know—it’s more comfortable,” she says, adding that when she is lecturing, she will often ask people to raise their hands if they are sitting with people they know, then ask them to move.

Meet the speaker

The one person everyone wants to add to his or her network? An exciting guest speaker. Avoid the mob scene at the end by getting to the room early—but wait for the speaker to approach you. “Right before the session may not be the right time,” Wallsh, a frequent speaker, says. “However, once I have everything set up, I will talk to people. So arrive early and feel your way. If they seem busy, it’s not the right time.”

If you don’t see an opportunity beforehand, be sure to ask a question during the session—the speaker will remember you after, Nierenberg says. And ask them when would be a good time to follow up, Wallsh adds. If they are rushing to make a flight, you can even offer to accompany them to the airport—they might be glad of the company and appreciate your respect for their time.

Woody Allen says 80 percent of life is showing up, and that is surely the case when it comes to making the right connections at meetings. “It’s hard to branch out of your own network unless you attend events,” Perlov says.

Networking tips

Networking experts Bonnie Wallsh and Andrea Nierenberg offer these tips for making the right connections at meetings.

  • When you walk into a room, smile.
  • Prepare a 30-second “elevator speech” specifically geared toward the event at hand.
  • Attend sessions for newcomers, even if you aren’t a first-timer. You’ll meet a lot of people who are all looking to talk with new folks and can offer to show them the ropes.
  • If you’re attending with colleagues, split up.
  • Arrive early and sit in front—it can be a good time to meet fellow attendees, and sitting close to the podium increases the odds of connecting with the speaker, if that is your goal.
  • Stay on the concierge floor—the lounge is a low-key place to make connections.
  • Set a realistic goal of how many new people you would like to meet.
Jeanne O’Brien Coffey writes frequently about business travel and employee motivation from her base north of Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Northshore magazine and numerous print and web outlets.

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