Having worked at the Burnaby Board of Trade, I felt very fortunate to be in a position that allowed for numerous networking opportunities on a regular basis. Whether it’s my own events that I organized, or getting an invitation to others, no other activity can foster stronger relationships with other people in quite the same fashion or capacity.

It could be for business opportunities, friendships, knowledge exchange, fun, inspiration, referrals, hook-ups, good deals, future invites, volunteering – the list goes on and on. Networking can never be a bad thing, UNLESS, you do not network effectively. Going to events and meeting people takes time out of your day, so you have to make use of that time and generate some calls to action when you are there. Going into events blindly and not knowing what you want to achieve when you’re there – well, you’re pretty much better off not going at all. You’ll likely end up moping about (perhaps at the snack table), refilling your drink constantly (to kill time), checking your BlackBerry (hoping to catch an email arrive before your phone vibrates), or flipping through some event sponsor’s brochure (for the 20th time that evening). After looking at your watch (again), you finally make a decision to go home.

Sure, most likely you are attending an event so that you can meet some people and find a way to tell them who you are and what you’re trying to sell. For effective networkers, they will reach that point eventually. But they do not rush into that, and it may very well not even get t. That’s not the intent. The intent is to build trust with the other person first and foremost. Once the trust is there, you can talk about virtually anything!

So this begs the questions: How do I network? How should I prepare? What do I say?

While I have some of my own personal strategies, I had posted a discussion on my LinkedIn account, asking members to help me compile a list of tips that will hopefully help people get some value out of going to networking events. Here they are in no particular order:

Approach the wallflowers in the room. No-one likes to be alone at any function, and they all have a story to tell. With a simple “Hi, my name is ________”, the conversation will start naturally, putting both parties at ease.
Smile, that cures 90% of the other person’s nerves and once they relax you can too.
Make sure that you are genuinely interested in helping other people rather than seeking help for yourself. If you even vaguely look like you are trying to find or ask for personal gain the conversation will die. If you are asking out of a genuine curiosity to see if you have anything (contacts, information, opinion etc) that could advance the other person towards their goal then you will be authentic and engaging. Do this enough and people will start to want to help you and the virtuous circle starts. You have to give and give and give to get. The good news is that it’s not hard, in fact it is fun and interesting.
Bring plenty of business cards with you. Nothing is worse than saying “Oh I’m sorry, I ran out of cards!” shows you didn’t come prepared.
Know what it is you do. More times than not, when I ask somebody what they do, they struggle with a clear and concise response. From my perspective, if the goal of networking isn’t simply to make more friends but in fact to increase the probability of more business, if you struggle with explaining what you do, I’m less likely to want to do business with you.

Have 3-4 one sentence benefit statements that you can roll out naturally in conversation. For example, one of my colleagues uses “I help companies manage their brand and reputations” when chatting with PR and marketing professionals. To paraphrase Guy Kawasaki in “Art of the Start” be passionate about several topics or, if you aren’t passionate about anything other than money, be well read enough to comment effectively on a variety of topics. For example, some of my passions include boxers (the dog), cooking, Canadian indie music, basketball, farming and mixed martial arts. I would hazard that I could connect with almost anyone on one of those topics at a networking event.
I feel it is more important to make genuine connections at networking events than amass a suit full of business cards. I cringe when seeing individuals at networking events toss out their cards like beads at Mardi Gras. I feel making 1-3 real, honest connections at a networking event is better than grabbing 10+ cards from people who probably won’t remember when you follow up.
Following up is the crucial next step in effectively networking at events. Guy Kawasaki recommends follow up within 24 hours of meeting, I set aside time first thing the following business day to follow up with each person I connected with, in particular mentioning something they said that I found interesting or pointing them to a resource I feel would be valuable to them.
Don’t confuse networking with a sales pitch.
Listen…genuinely listen to others.
Don’t bombard people with pre-rehearsed topics.
Always remember that the person you have just introduced yourself to, may actually be someone that trains people on “networking skills”.
Dress smart, smell nice, don’t chew a chewing gum before or through the conversation, don’t stand there yawning (go and get some fresh air) and stale smoke is terrible.
If it is your event, make time for everyone around. Don’t engage in long drawn, never ending conversations with the same person all evening.
Create an intention … decide what results you want to create.
Connect with the other person … make a friend by building a relationship with them. Find out what they do; what they like about what they do; and what they are looking for. Let them know what you like about what you do and how you make a difference for others. See how you can help each other. Acknowledge yourself for taking the steps!
Most people at networking events are feeling uncomfortable (even if they won’t admit it :)) – so the more relaxed, open, friendly and present you are with them, the better it will go!
In an event, everyone seems to share similar goals; one of them is obviously networking. Thus, it is secure to say that there will be plenty of people who will have the same intentions, and this is already a good start. The only missing point is to find a common ground that will lead you to create a strong bonding with the other. Listen first to what she/he says, analyze her/his style & mindset and try to touch base on a topic that will grasp her/his attention. And remember, what you do with one, one might do it with you; so stay open as other people would certainly like to bond with you as well.

If you learn how to turn cold calls into warm calls, you won’t have to waste your time on networking, which is very inefficient.

Networking is an efficient way to bring qualified leads to the sales pipeline. Once contacts are gathered, cold leads can be converted into customers. Also, they can be used for procurement, service outsourcing, partnerships, etc.
I wear my kilt – great icebreaker… I also don’t usually attend networking events unless I am speaking or have to meet someone there.
Talk 20% of the time, listen 80% of the time. Look for genuine open-ended questions to ask as the other person is talking. e.g. “How is that working out for you?”, “What’s your biggest challenge right now?”, “What do you plan to do next?”

Please feel free to include your own tip(s) for networking success. And always remember – you are attending an event, so HAVE FUN!