Many young professionals are excited to go to their first networking event or conference but don’t feel prepared. The stakes are much higher when your company is paying to send you to an event, compared to attending a local networking event. You may feel like you need to justify their investment in you and wonder if you’ll meet your boss’ expectations. This can be even more worrisome if you’re one of the many people who feel that networking is icky.
I used to have those same concerns when I was first starting out in my career. Since then, I’ve hosted and attended hundreds of events and eventually wrote a book about how to network more strategically at conferences. Now, I’m a speaker and coach with a focus on relationship-based business strategy.
Here are four mistakes I’ve seen many people make before, during, or after attending a networking event and have guided my clients to avoid.
Failing to set intentions. Before attending a conference, it’s important to understand what your company’s goals are and what they would consider success. You may be told your goal is to “learn new things.” But the truth is you can learn new things from the comfort of your home or office through podcasts, intranet portals, and YouTube. Thus, the real value of attending in person is the possibility of connections. Ask your boss to help you figure out who you should meet. Building relationships will be beneficial for your company, and frankly, your career.
Setting intentions for your networking is important whether you’re a social butterfly or a wallflower. If you’re outgoing, you may think you don’t need to set intentions because you feel comfortable meeting lots of people. But without clear intentions, you’ll be meeting random people and collecting their business cards—which is not strategic networking and won’t provide a return on investment for you or your company.
On the other hand, if you’re shy, you may hesitate to set intentions because you find networking distasteful and don’t really want to do it. After all, it may feel uncomfortable to talk about yourself and share your accomplishments. That was certainly the case for Sarah, one of my clients. Sarah now reviews the program brief to identify speakers she wants to meet and joins the event’s Facebook group to interact with participants ahead of time so she knows who to look for at the event. She experiences many serendipitous moments made possible because she is looking for connections. Setting an intention around who you’re hoping to meet will make it easier for you to gain the confidence to take action when the opportunity arises.
Waiting too long to come up with the perfect opening line. You’re at the event and you spot someone you had hoped to meet. What next? Many of my clients say they try to come up with a clever opening line or want to remember exactly what it was about this person that made them want to say hello in the first place. If you spend a few minutes trying to get up the nerve to say hello, it’s likely that person will have walked out of sight. The worst opening line is the one you don’t get to say. The best opening line? “Hi, my name is…” followed by an open-ended question (e.g., “How did you hear about this event?” or “What has been your favorite session so far?” or “What keeps you coming back year after year?”).
Making too big of an ask. Conferences are a great place to meet influencers in your field and professionals with several decades of experience. Most young professionals know that follow up is an important part of networking. In their eagerness to stay connected with these senior professionals they make big requests (e.g., ask for a job referral or for advice over coffee), before they’ve built a relationship and their message is not well received. Keep your follow-up message brief and make small requests that are easy to do, bearing in mind that some people believe you should wait an entire year to ask for a big favor.
An initial email could say, “Nice to meet you at XYZ conference. I really enjoy our conversation about ABC and would appreciate suggestions for further reading or listening on this topic. Do you have any books or podcasts to recommend?”
Being too presumptuous. While you do want to be clear about what you are asking for in your follow-up message, you don’t want to jump right to your request. It’s quite possible that the person you are reaching out to has met dozens, or even hundreds, of people in the last month. They may not remember you without some hints (e.g., “We briefly met at the XYZ conference a few days ago. I was the person who mentioned how your speech got me thinking differently about my role and how I could be adding more value to my company.”)
If you took action because of something they had said, either directly to you, on stage, or in a book they wrote, share the impact they had on you. Being specific with your gratitude will illustrate that you care to connect with them in particular and you are not sending out generic requests to everyone you recently met.
Neeraj Shah, former National Director for Business Network International (BNI) India says, “The top 4% of salespeople don’t focus on the close. They focus on another key important attribute of the entire sales process. In fact, 40% of their time is spent on cultivating this one thing—rapport.” Apply this same approach to your networking strategy and you will begin to see positive results and new opportunities will become available to you.
By avoiding these common mistakes, you’ll feel more prepared to make the most of your next conference experience. Go in with clear intentions, make great connections, and nurture those relationships. That’s how you build a strong network.