Have you ever been to a networking event? If you’re a professional with more than a few years of experience, and you haven’t, you’re missing out on a critical opportunity. Professional networking is one of the best ways to improve yourself and build your network of contacts, but if you aren’t prepared to make a good impression during your course, you might not be seeing your true potential.
The "How" of Networking.
Making a good impression involves two stages: first, you need to make a strong first impression (since you only get one, and it tends to stick). Second, you need to ensure that your impression sticks and is reinforced in the future.
So how can you make that happen?
Why Networking Is So Valuable
First, let’s explore why networking is so valuable in the first place:
- Contacts. The first and most obvious benefit is the potential to expand your professional network. Every new contact you make has a chance of being a future partner, coworker, lead, employee, or client, so it’s worth building up your rolodex.
- Exposure. Networking also gives you the potential for personal brand exposure; when you make your presence known at several public events, and you attend networking events regularly, you’ll start building a reputation for yourself. With enough reiteration, and a wide enough network of contacts, you could become a low-key local celebrity.
- Knowledge and experience. Meeting new people gives you the chance to learn something new, whether it’s a new skill or simply a new perspective on the professional world. The more people you meet, the more knowledgeable and experienced you’ll become.
Making a Good First Impression
Evidence suggests we start to form a first impression about a person we’re meeting within a tenth of a second of meeting them; that’s not a lot of time to get your act together. How you interact with someone in those crucial first few minutes could dictate how they think of you in the future, and guide the rest of their interaction with you, so it pays to make that first impression as positive as possible:
- Dress for the occasion. One of the easiest things you can do is to dress for the occasion. If you’re attending a loosely casual event, dress in business casual attire. If you’re attending something more formal, wear some of your best clothes. Make sure you have custom-fitted clothing in your arsenal, and wear something unique enough that you stand out in the crowd—but appropriate enough that you don’t look out of place. That’s a hard balance to strike, even for the fashionably savvy, but it’s important if you want to make the right impression from the beginning.
- Groom yourself. This should go without saying, but you also need to reasonably groom yourself. Spend some time making your hair look good, and get a haircut earlier in the day if you get the chance. If you have facial hair, make sure it’s trimmed. Make sure you’re clean, and try to smell nice for the occasion.
- Be on time. Most networking events are informal opportunities to socialize with other people, so punctuality isn’t the highest priority, but for any event with a schedule, make sure you time your entrance appropriately. If you arrive at the event too early, when nobody’s around, you might have a hard time settling into the event. If you arrive after festivities have started, people might see you differently, or worse, brand you as “the one who showed up late” before they even have a chance to meet you.
- Control your body language. Your body language makes a bigger impression than you might realize. Holding yourself with good posture, with your back straight and your shoulders back, for example, can make you appear more confident. Opening your arms and legs can make you appear like a more open, trustworthy person.
- Vary your tone and inflection. While speaking, make sure to vary your tone and inflection. The words you say are important (as you’ll see further down this list), but you also need to control how you deliver those words. Speaking in a monotone voice, or speaking without natural accents and variances, makes you seem uninteresting and less colorful; it may also make your words less impactful.
- Give a good handshake. When you started this article, you probably imagined reading about the power of a good handshake, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t include it on this list. The psychology of a handshake has surprising depth to it (and you can find out more about it here), but suffice it to say, the “classic” two-pump, firm handshake is one of the best ways to cement your reputation with someone new. Master it before attending a networking event.
- Make eye contact. Another classic on this list is mastering the art of eye contact. Making eye contact with someone makes it easier to connect with them, and shows that you’re paying attention to what they’re saying. The only caveat here is that you should avoid making prolonged eye contact, as it can make people feel uncomfortable and make it seem less “natural.”
- Choose your words carefully. Recent evidence shows that people respond to trustworthiness more than confidence in first impressions; that’s to say, it’s more important to present yourself as a trustworthy person than it is to project confidence. Don’t try to dominate the conversation or use big words unnaturally; just be polite, be yourself, and let the conversation flow.
- Abandon your distractions. Nothing can wreck an otherwise good first impression like burying yourself in your phone or getting distracted by something else in the room. When you meet someone, your focus needs to be on them for the duration of your interaction; otherwise, you risk losing that contact altogether.
Making a Lasting Impression
A good first impression is critical to your success, but you also need to make sure your impression lasts. You can extend the duration and endurance of your impression with these tactics:
- Have a promotional product. If you want to make a lasting impression, you should give your new contacts something lasting to remember you by. For most professionals, that means handing out business cards, but if you want to take it to the next level, hand out promotional products. Inexpensive promotional products like lanyards, pens, and keychains, are relatively practical, and can help people remember you. Find out more about lanyards and other promo products before you make the investment.
- Come to the event prepared. It also helps if you come to the event prepared. You should have some knowledge of how the event came to be and why most people are attending, so you have something to talk about. If there are any requirements or suggestions for guests, you should be familiar with those too.
- Be yourself. The old adage to “be yourself” applies here. You may be tempted to put on a more “professional” or more likable persona, but you’ll probably end up coming across as insincere or fake. It’s much better to be yourself, albeit a version of yourself that’s appropriate for a general audience. People will be far more likely to remember you.
- Tell a personal anecdote. If you can, try to work a personal anecdote into your interaction. Tell a story about one of your past experiences, or about your current job. If it’s unique, and possibly amusing, people will have an easier time remembering you.
- Develop a connection. Try to forge a personal connection with the people you meet. You can do that by finding something you share in common, going through an experience together, or providing them with help in some way. This connection doesn’t have to be big or powerful; anything can serve as a tether to make you more memorable.
- Make people laugh. People will remember you if you make them laugh. You shouldn’t go out of your way to become a comedian, but knowing a good joke or two is bound to help you in these situations. People love to laugh and will associate you with positive feelings if you can make them do it.
- Use people’s names. Once you learn someone’s name, try repeating it a few times in the span of your conversation. It makes people feel closer to you, and has the added bonus of helping you remember their name in the future.
- Follow up. One of the most important ways to cement your impression with a new contact is to follow up with them a few days after the event. You don’t have to say or do much; simply reaching out and telling them it was nice to meet them is often enough to make your memory endure. While you’re at it, try to set up a coffee meeting or lunch in the near future.
These strategies may seem like a lot to remember, but once you’ve practiced them at a handful of networking events, they’ll become second nature to you. Networking is like any other professional skill; the more you practice it, the better you’ll become, and the more comfortable and confident you’ll feel doing it. Accordingly, you should attend as many networking events as you can, especially early in your career, and make your presence known.