by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
You pause at the door but then decide on another trip to the restroom. You’ve been at the entrance to the ballroom twice before but, each time, found compelling reasons not to go in. First time, when you looked into the room, there was nobody there. Second time the room was too packed. Now you’ve just got to touch up your make up. As you leave the Restroom you see a familiar face. Happy days! You enter the room together and stand there for an hour sipping drinks and smiling hopefully at anyone who makes eye contact. You then convince each other it’s a crap party and leave.
Many of us would prefer to sit all day in wet clothes than network at a cocktail party. We feel permanently uncomfortable as we scan the room and can only look on in amazement at the social butterflies that flit so easily from group to group, delighting everyone with their witty chat and wonderful company and collecting piles of valuable business cards.
What to do?
Admittedly there are a small number of “natural networkers” – maybe 10% of the average function room. These guys and girls are, literally, in their element. They know instinctively what to do and say, how to connect, how to ask for the business card, how to be remembered and, importantly, how to move on. It all looks so natural and, in real terms, it is!
But you don’t have to be a natural networker to be a successful networker. After 20 years in this industry I’ve figures out a few tricks that appear to work. So, in preparation for an orgy of networking at IMEX Frankfurt, here are 6 steps to networking success:
1. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail!
For non-natural networkers it’s all about the preparation. You need to set clear objectives for the event and then follow through on them rationally and systematically. Get the attendee list in advance and figure out who you want to talk to. You may even be able to arrange in advance to meet in the bar before the event and then walk into the function together. This way you solve two issues – how to get face time with an important contact and how to get into the room without the awful sinking feeling of being on your own!
2. “Ignore your Mother!” (as oft quoted by my beloved business partner and networker extraordinaire, Patrick Delaney)
The big temptation at a networking event is to gravitate immediately to the smiling, familiar faces that you know and to remain in that comfortable cocoon for the duration of the event. But, if you do that, how can you possibly hope to make new contacts and develop new business opportunities? You must enter the room ready to ignore your own Mother and by that I mean DO NOT, under any circumstances, mooch in with guys fro your own company or destination or hotel group. This is not a company social or a party. It’s a work event and you’re being paid to get yourself out there and to make new connections.
3. Get a good Wingman!
This point is related to both points above. As part of the preparation process choose a good companion equally anxious to get in there and build a network. Create a target list together and work the room systematically, drawing mutual support and encouragement from each other. Over time you’ll become a crack team!
But this may not always be possible. Sometimes you’re on your own. In such cases try point 4 below.
4. Immerse yourself in some basic human psychology
Sean Weafer, author of The High Trust Advisor, identifies 3 ways that people arrange themselves at networking functions – as individuals, as open groups and as closed groups. The individual, like ourselves, is an outsider looking for a way in. He or she is an easy target and will breathe a sigh of relief when we approach them with a friendly handshake and simple request “Do you mind if I join you?”. Open groups, too, usually stand in a half moon configuration so it’s easy for us to fill the empty slot. Again a simple “May I join you?” will ensure we’re welcomed with open arms. Don’t bother with the closed groups!
5. No eating and, especially, no drinking!
Networking events are for networking, not for eating and definitely not for drinking! If you really want to build your network you must use every available minute to connect with people. The effectiveness of your “connectiveness” is in inverse proportion to the amount of food in your mouth or alcohol in you head – eat before the function and drink in celebration after it, when you’ve scored that great piece of business!
6. Use props
Personally I’m not hugely in favour of this slightly predictable approach but some networkers swear by their carnation buttonholes or their Bart Simpson tie or their extra bright red pantyhose. Me, I always take a pen and paper and make notes of interesting conversation points which I can then refer to in my follow up e mails.
Overall approach each networking event with achievable goals – tell yourself you’re going to speak with 3 new people, for example. Over time you’ll build on this and before long you’ll actually look forward to “working the room” and building a great network.
With his business partner Patrick Delaney, Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua, a boutique marketing consultancy working in the MICE industry.