Networking Game Plan

by guest author, Peggy Parks, The Parks Image Group

I had never networked until I started my business and was absolutely petrified. What should I do? What should I say? How do I start a conversation? How do I end a conversation? What do I talk about? How do I approach people? What do I wear? It was all so overwhelming. Therefore I’ve decided to assemble this “cheat sheet” for those of you who may feel uncomfortable mingling in a room full of strangers. Read this before you leave the house!
Before the Event: Have a Plan

  • Where are you going?
  • Why are you going?
  • Who will be there?
  • What is your goal?

Make sure you have plenty of business cards (neatly organized in a card holder) and a pen and notepad. Clear out your wallet and handbag to avoid any embarrassing spills.

Have your “elevator pitch” ready. An “elevator pitch” is essentially a spiel you give in the time it takes to ride an elevator (anywhere from 30-60 seconds). Hit the major bullet points – who you are, what you do, what you’re looking to accomplish – and be prepared to recite this throughout the event.

When You First Arrive 

  1. Survey the room. As you approach the door, take a moment to check your posture, adopt a relaxed and confident facial expression, and determine whether or not anyone you know is inside. Take a deep breath – it’ll help you calm those nerves. 
  2. Make conversation. Approach someone who is standing alone – most likely they’ll be grateful for the effort. Do not interrupt people who are deep in conversation, and do not invade others’ personal space. If you’re still at a loss, introduce yourself to the host or check-in person; oftentimes they are happy to make introductions to get the party going.

What to Say
We all know to stay away from politics and religion, but you should also make sure that you leave your personal life behind. Don’t talk about health issues. Do not criticize the venue or the food. Do not gossip.
Check the headlines and be aware of what’s going on in the news. This will give you a conversation starter. “What do you think of….?” This way you can gauge the person’s opinion and respond accordingly. There’s less chance of offending someone.
The easiest thing to do is ask others to talk about themselves. We all love to do this. Even if the person you are talking to is boring, be mindful; do not make them feel uncomfortable. Listen to them, nod, agree, be in a forward position, and look at them, not at who is coming through the door!

Should the person not know how to stop talking, you need to make a graceful exit. Do not make them feel bad. Smile; tell them you enjoyed the conversation and that you need to mingle with others.

Business Cards
I attended an event earlier this year. The event had already started and I noticed a woman who came in late. Before she sat at a table, she made sure she distributed her business card to everyone in the room. She was trying to be “discreet” but was very disruptive and rude. The woman next to me said, “Peggy, she needs to take your etiquette class.” What was she thinking? (She wasn’t.) Do not hand out your business card unless someone asks for it. All they will do is throw it away. Do not assume you can add someone to your distribution list simply because you have their contact info. Networking is about forming relationships, not selling yourself. People won’t buy from you unless they know you, like you, and trust you. It all takes time. Research shows that it takes seven “touches” for people to remember you. Exercise a little patience and take the time to forge a connection.
What to Wear
If you want to “work the room,” I recommend that you wear friendly and approachable colors such as a medium brown, a medium blue, or earth tones (if they are flattering to your skin tone). Wearing black may be a bit intimidating.

Wear a jacket which has two pockets. It will help when giving out your business card. Put your business cards in your right pocket, and put the business cards you receive in your left pocket (or vice versa). This will prevent the embarrassment of giving out someone else’s business card!
Following Up
This is the most important part of networking. Don’t let a great connection slip through your fingers because you were too lazy to follow up!

  1. Enter your contacts into your database. Include a few notes so that you can recall what you discussed.
  2. Pay it forward by making connections and introductions. Not every person you meet will present a business opportunity for you – yet. But by connecting someone with another contact who may be in the same field you can impress two friends, who will more than likely return the favor down the road.
  3. Send a thank you note or email if you are short on time.
  4. Check back a month later.
  5. Connect on social media. LinkedIn and Facebook – provided your profile is professional, not personal – can be a great way to keep in touch.

Peggy M. Parks is an international image consultant and founder of The Parks Image Group, Inc. in Atlanta, Georgia. Custom corporate workshops on professional business attire and etiquette, private one-on-one consulting that features a personal and individually crafted image plan and wardrobe planning and selection form the core services Peggy’s company provides.

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