Tell me if this story sounds familiar:
You go to a business conference or networking event, find the first speaker, sit down and jump on your phone or computer immediately to check emails. You avoid talking to people and wait for the ‘right moment’ to approach.
When you finally do start a conversation with someone, you say, “so, what do you do?” The person looks at you annoyed and the conversation lasts for about 1 minute.
You have 30-40 surface-level conversations and get a headache half way through the event. Your lower back hurts.
Later during the event you drink too much free beer and forget most of what you learned and the content of the conversations you had.
At the end of the day, you are drained. You come back home carrying a bag full of brochures and free crap you got, which you immediately throw in the trash. You wanted to network so that you could find a new job, but you are not sure if you accomplished much.
You follow up with the people who’s business cards you collected. You don’t recall exactly what most people spoke about, so you send a general email with no action point.
“Good meeting at the event, let’s stay in touch!”
Nothing happens, and the memory of the event fades away into the distant past.
The stark realization that this approach doesn’t work
There’s something comical about it when we really stop to consider how inefficient our approach to networking can be. I know about this inefficiency from personal experience because I’ve been to many networking events, sweat-stained, awkward and usually leaving empty-handed.
In life I often turn to heuristics and witty aphorisms to make decisions (perhaps out of laziness). While they can be useful, sometimes they are too broad and require a more in-depth approach.
For example, my mentality was that simply by ‘showing up’ to a networking event, that’s all it took. Everything else would take care of itself and the pieces would somehow fall into place.
Not so. You can go to a networking event and actually come out with nothing (except perhaps a few powerpoint slides that will be shared online later anyways).
Woody Allan’s quote “80% of success is showing up” doesn’t apply to networking.
Well then, is there a better way to network? Yes, I believe so.
In fact, you don’t even have to stay for the full networking event to get what you want. Once you have defined your desired outcomes, you can take an 80/20 approach to take the highest-impact actions that will allow you to achieve your goals.
Let me share how I do it and a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way after many failed (and later successful) events.
To give you a snapshot, here’s exactly what I do when I go to a networking event.
- Goal setting. Going in with a vague idea like “pick up leads” or “get a job” are going to set you up for disappointment. Before even signing up for the event, I assess whether it’s worth it and what I plan to achieve, in terms of specific people, outcomes and numbers. (meet X person from Y company, send them follow up email and aim to get coffee meeting)
- Research. I research topics ahead of time and identify the people I want to meet, and occasionally reach out to them before the event. That way I don’t show up running around like a chicken with my head cut off.
- Focus. I always go to the gym the morning of the event, have a healthy lunch, and I never stay for the full day. That way I leave happy.
- Quality over Quantity. I have a handful of conversations at most and aim to establish a deeper connection with at most 1-2 people. I never ask people “what they do” and always use the content around me and as a conversation starter, as well as topics I prepared ahead of time.
- Follow Up. I send a follow up to everyone and take some action — whether that’s scheduling another coffee meeting with them privately or introducing them to someone that could be beneficial for them to know, or sending them links, ideas and resources that they could find useful (aka adding value).
#1 Goal Setting
What is your goal of going to a networking event? To find a job? Get sales leads? Hear about new trends? Make friends?
I never used to ask this question. Well, kind of, but it was never specific.
Let’s make sure it’s specific. If your goal is “to get a job” then you might ask yourself, “is that a realistic goal?” Perhaps you could get a job down the line from the connections you make, but you’re probably not going to be offered a job on the day of the networking event.
We can make our goals more realistic.
In the case of ‘getting the job,’ perhaps the first action is to have a conversation with the hiring manager or employee from the company and build a relationship with them. Once you establish a connection with that person, without sounding needy, they are now in your “network.” Once they are in your network, you can do all sorts of things in your follow up.
Let me give you a detailed example.
During my time as a recruiter (finding hires for tech companies) I would go ti events with the goal of making one business connection with a company that I knew was hiring. In one occasion, I went in with literally just one goal in mind: Talking to the VP of X startup company (that I knew was hiring) for 15 minutes to understand their current hiring needs (I knew they were entering the market and potentially hiring). And that’s it. As long as I achieved that, I would be happy and could either leave the event or choose to stay (in a much more relaxed state, since I had achieved my goal).
In that same example, I went to the event, found the VP and had a short conversation. I asked him a couple of questions about the company (congrats on the recent funding), industry (I heard about the recent X news in the industry, how does that affect your business?), and showed him that generally I was part of the “in” crowd because I was asking relevant questions. He did most the talking. After 5 minutes he immediately complained about how difficult it was to find X hire for their business. I told him that I actually knew a few people and could introduce him. He was skeptical (that’s ok), but we exchanged cards and told him I’d follow up with an email. Afterwards, I stayed at the event for 1 hour.
Returning back to the office I immediately went to work — I sent him a follow up email, contacted 5 people I thought could be relevant to introduce him, and set myself a high target. Within 24 hours I was able to introduce the VP to a couple of job-seekers who were interested in helping his business. Needless to say, he was impressed with my speed. In the end we closed a deal which resulted in $65k USD in revenue. Pretty impressive ROI considering I was only at the event for a couple of hours.
Ultimately, whatever your goal is, you’re going to have to prepare beforehand and can use similar tactics to start conversations.
If you are a job-seeker, you can take a similar approach. Find the person you need to talk to, have a conversation, find out what their businesses paint-point is, and then give yourself 24 hours to follow up with an email and some sort of ‘value-add’ — whether that’s a business proposition or ideas you have to help their business from the perspective of an employee (and attach your resume while you’re at it).
The point is — define your goal and over-deliver on it.
Now that you have defined your goal, we can prepare our approach.
One of the reasons I used to be nervous about going to networking events was because I was afraid of being “found out.” That people would think I knew nothing about the topics being discussed and that they would discover I somehow wasn’t worthy to be there.
Putting aside the fact that nobody actually cares about my ‘worthiness,’ I am sure this sort of anxiety is something that others feel as well.
The easiest way to overcome this is to prepare. For example, if you are going to a networking event that has a specific industry theme (finance, AI, medicine, robotics, journalism, etc.) then you can do the following things to prepare ahead of time. It should take you 30 minutes.
1. Search Google News for the top trending topics around that industry. Read a handful of articles. You can use these as conversation starters.
2. Identify macro trends in the industry (and what they intersect with). For example, if you are going to a ‘blockchain technology’ networking event because you are super interested in it but are a complete novice, that’s ok. Read all of the top news sites about block-chain, find out the big, unanswered questions, and write them down. You can use these as conversation starters.
3. Know your speakers. Look up the speakers (if any) that are going to be at the event. Find out if they have written anything online or published any books, and read those. If you don’t have time to read their books, then at the least read a summary of them online.
4. Ask around. Ask any friends, colleagues, or acquaintances you have (maybe even just post something on twitter/facebook) what they know about the topic.
When I am going to a specific industry event — especially when I don’t know about the industry — I want to make sure that I have prepared a few questions that I couldn’t answer.
For example, I recently went to a digital advertising networking event. After some googling, I found that one of the trending topics that kept popping up was ‘ad-blocking’ and how that could affect the ad industry. I read a couple articles about it and realized it’s a polarizing issue and a quite interesting one to bring up. While I didn’t understand the technical aspects of this, I determined it would be worth dropping in as a conversation starter.
When I went to the event I kept my introduction super simple. I tried this out on a couple of people:
“Hey, my name is Misha, nice to meet you,…So, what do you think about the recent announcement about ad blockers?”
On both occasions they immediately launched into their opinions on the matter and how it would do X and Y and so on and so forth. People love talking about controversial issues, especially when it relates to them.
In the case you are going to a career event, specifically to find a job, then it’s even more straightforward. You want to ask the following things:
- You want to research the specific companies you might want to speak to and the names of the specific people that will attend the event.
- Basic research on the history, business model, founders, and strategy.
- What value you think you could potentially add.
- Several questions you can ask them about their business (check out a list here I made on Quora)
Another great approach is to actually reach out to people beforehand and schedule to meet them during the event. This works especially well when the event is large and you don’t want to get lost in the crowd.
Typically companies list out the attendees on the event page, and you can then find those people on LinkedIn. Sometimes events also have their Facebook page where you can see all of the members who are attending. I’ve seen some really big events (usually conferences) create their own mobile apps specifically for that event, so you can just message people directly on the app.
When reaching out to these people beforehand you can say something like:
If you are a sales guy: “Hey John, I read X article about your company recently and excited to hear about Y and Z (your recent funding round). Actually had a few questions as I’m in a similar industry and would love to sit down over coffee for 15 minutes during the event next week. Let me know if you’d be free — also my cells 888-9999.”
If you are a job seeker: “My name is Bill and I’ve been a big user of your companies product X for a long time. Actually I’m really curious about your new release of X product and had a few questions. I’m a new graduate from X university by the way and will be at the event tomorrow, perhaps we could sit down for 15 minutes and discuss during the event. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.”
Another ingenious way of getting a chance to speak to especially more senior people or those who you think won’t have much time to talk, is to position yourself as someone in ‘media.’ For example, you could say that you are looking interview people for your new blog, Youtube channel, or company blog. This way you can sit down with them for 30 minutes -1 hour during or after the event and actually get some quality time.
This does a few things. First, it establishes credibility (you are important). Second, it forces you to do research on the person and prepare questions. And third, it’s a win for them because they get free exposure/content. And people love hearing themselves talk.
The approach is reach out similarly on Linked or Facebook and ask, “I’ll be at the event next week and would love the chance to interview you for 20-30 minutes for my companies new tech blog. The blog is about X and Y and I think your topic is very relevant. Let me know if you can meet at 2pm at the cafe.”
After you do the interview (bring you iPhone or camera to record), then you can casually plug your product or that you are in the job market, depending on your goals. Either do this in person or afterwards in a follow-up email.
I am sure most people don’t go to this level of preparation before an event unless they are a startup company trying to get funding. But if you spend the 30 minutes – 1 hour getting ready and reaching out to people beforehand, it’s going to make the whole event a lot smoother. And you probably won’t even have to stay for the whole event since you know exactly who you want to talk to.
The good news is that if you’ve followed steps 1 and 2 then your stress levels are going to be a lot lower just with the preparation and peace of mind knowing that you’re scheduled to meet people ahead of time, and have certain conversation topics already prepared.
When I went to events before I would always feel crappy after a couple of hours or the day after, usually because of the following reasons:
- Lots of jitters from too much coffee
- Tired because I didn’t get enough sleep the night before
- Exhausted from trying to remember peoples names and have chit-chatty conversations with dozens of strangers
- Back and feet hurt because of carrying a heavy back pack around the event
If you are going to a bigger conference or event that lasts a full day or longer, these have pretty simple solutions. Some tips here:
- I exercise the night before or the morning of and makes sure to get plenty sleep, so I am fresh and focused for the event.
- I try and avoid all caffeine and alcohol except a coffee the morning of. Beer can make events fun and I’m not saying you shouldn’t drink, as long as you have self control and are focused on your goals…but from personal experience I end up drinking too much and usually forget why I was there. Not a big deal if you are there to have a good time.
- I take long lunches, eat healthy, and rarely stay for the full event. I want to leave time and energy to actually follow up with people and get other stuff done.
- I don’t bring my computer with me as it gets distracted and I’m tempted to whip it out and pretend I’m working or doing something important, when I’m really not.
Now if you are going to an event thats only a couple of hours long then you don’t have to worry too much about this. Rather, just make sure you are well rested, drop off your bags in a locker (or leave them at home) and wear comfortable shoes.
#4 Quality over Quantity
My previous approach to networking could best be described as “spray and pray” where I threw around my business card at every person I met.
Eventually I realized this was just led to dead ends and hardly ever panned out.
Having a deeper conversation with 1 person is going to be more valuable than speaking to 50 people.
Once I realized this, it was a paradigm shift for me.
Why? Because that one person is more likely to give something back to you, and that thing (which is related to your goal that you set earlier) is going to be a lot more relevant than 50 business cards and forgotten conversations. It only takes one person and one meaningful conversation to find what you are looking for, so it makes sense to invest your time in that one person.
When I say “deeper conversation,” I mean that you are actually spending several minutes talking to that person. Maybe 10-15 minutes, or longer.
And when I say talking, I don’t actually mean you are talking. I mean that you are letting them do 80% of the talking.
I remember one instance where I had simply asked a string of 7 or 8 questions about advertising to someone I met at a networking event, and at the end of our conversation the guy actually stopped and said, “Wow, you’re a good listener.”
All I did was ask them questions without interrupting and didn’t look around at other people. I stayed focused, made eye contact, and smiled.
When I make eye contact with someone, I assume they want to talk to me, so I immediately stick my hand out and introduce myself.
I am an introvert usually, but at events I push myself outside of my comfort zone. Everyone around you is there to network as well, and you’re all on the same boat.
I have never, once in my life been ‘rejected’ when sticking my hand out for a handshake to introduce myself. If in the unlikely event someone doesn’t want to talk to you, then fine, they are probably an asshole and you don’t want to talk to them anyways. Move on.
One of the worst things you can ask is “what do you do?” Well, you should ask that eventually, but it shouldn’t be your first question.
Why? Because everyone asks that question and people are tired of talking about work.
When you approach someone you want to make them to feel special. This means not picking your nose or launching in to an explanation about your boss or whatever.
When you take the approach of actually listening to someone and spending a disproportionately large amount of time with them to have a discussion, you are basically telling them you do give a fuck.
You’re not just there for their business card or to get a job or to make a sale, or whatever your “goal” is. Rather, when you speak to them, you want to be giving more than you are taking. You might not think you have much to give, but it doesn’t have to be anything substantial. For example:
- Ideas/ Resources – during your conversation perhaps you mention something they like — a book, video, etc. they haven’t read or watched. Or that really detailed HR strategy you read about recently that you think is worth sharing and relevant. The key is to listen for what their current problems/challenges are, and see if there is anything you can come up with to make their lives easier. That’s something you can give them in your follow-up (make sure to get their business card, of course!) “I’ll send you the link later” or “Oh I know a great French restaurant for your Boston trip”
- Connections – if you know some business connection that could be related or valuable for them, or even non-worked related, then promise to connect them to the person later. “I’ll connect you to the guy running the golf event next month” or “I’ll connect you to the guy who I met recently who is running the new CRM product which could be useful for your business” or “the photographer that did our company photos”
- Things they Like – literally anything they bring up in the conversation that indicates their hobbies gives you a chance to give them something (movie recommendation etc). Also, free stuff your have like that extra pair of baseball tickets you don’t really need are great conversation starters.
If you really feel like you have nothing to give them, that’s ok. The next best thing you can do is give them the gift of listening.
Of course there is also a level of randomness and spontaneity to networking events — thats what makes them fun. There will be some people you meet by chance, that could be valuable connections.
In that case, you can use your arsenal of topics and questions you prepared beforehand. Conversation topics and making the approach to talk to someone are some of the biggest steps you need to take, and it’s where people fumble the most.
We can make this really simple. Here are 3 ways that you can approach someone and specific things you can actually say.
Try all of them and see which one works for you.
- Topics are all around you. If there is a speaker during the event then go listen to a speech for 1 hour. Jot down some notes of what you learned from it. Share it.
- Macro Events and Non-Industry related. This could be a recent event like presidential election or something going on in the industry (like the ad blocking example I mentioned earlier).
- Person specific. If you have done your research as discussed in the previous section, you’ll know exactly who you’re talking to. You can go up to them and say “Hey, you’re John from X company. Just read an interesting article about your company!”
Here are the basics of good body language that makes people want to talk to you.
- Don’t cross your arms, ever.
- Talk 20% of the time and listen 80% of the time.
Most people cross their arms when they are nervous or uncomfortable. When you do this, people become uncomfortable in return. So now you have 2 uncomfortable people who don’t want to talk to each other. There’s a lot of stuff written on body language — like this book.
#5 Follow up
You can follow all of the above steps but still come out with nothing. While you may be able to make some very meaningful connections and talk to the right people that you reached out to ahead of time, a lot of it hangs on your actions, not your words.
I guarantee that the people you met during the networking event also met a dozen or more people, of which maybe 1 or 2 might follow up with them. None of them are probably going to give them anything valuable. This is your chance to stand out.
I always follow within 24 hours of the event. My emails used to be pretty poor and not actionable, like “Hey great meeting at the event, let’s stay in touch and maybe grab coffee sometime.”
If you are very lucky they might actually get back to you, but probably not. You want to include the following things in your email:
- Remind them who you are (“I was the blond guy and we discussed Woody Allen movies”)
- Give them something (“here is the link I promised I would share” and/or “I will connect you to Bob who I mentioned via email shortly”)
- Ask to meet/speak again with a specific time and date (“I’d love to continue the conversation we were having perhaps over coffee/wine sometime, how about Monday June 8th anytime after 6 around this location?”)
- Deliverable/Project – If you have a project proposal or you are a job seeker and would like to share a an idea with them, this is a great way to stand out. Here is a list of project proposal ideas that you could share (“I was excited after your conversation so came up with some marketing ideas for your new product, find attached here. Would love to meet and talk further…”)
And voila, that’s the follow up. It’s the start of a hopefully long and meaningful business relationship.
So to summarize here are the 5 points:
- Define your goal (specific, actionable)
- Research (people, events, trends)
- Focus (take care of yourself)
- Quality over quantity (talk to the right people, not all of the people)
- Follow up (always do it)
I realize that this is more than most people do to prepare. All in all, it’ll probably take you an extra 30 minutes or 1 hour of your time to do some research and reach out to people. In the end, it will give you a huge leg up on other people, make events productive, and less stressful.
I hope it brings you closer to achieving your goals, whatever they may be. Good luck!
If you liked this article, please share it with a friend. You can also get access to my top interview tips and tricks here: