I was chatting with a highly introverted friend the other day about networking, and it occurred to me that I have a fair amount of experience with this, since recreating myself as a sustainable interior design consultant in 2008. Here are highlights from our conversation:
It's a good idea to come armed with some recent news topics or general conversation starters that are tailored to the event you are attending. Don't ask people what they do for work, that's boring, especially if you're at an industry networking event and chances are you all do something similar. Instead, ask them what they are passionate about, and watch their eyes light up as they tell you about it. Pretty soon you can't stop the conversation from pouring out.
Another good one is to ask if they collect anything. Or, what their favorite childhood memory is. You just gotta tap into the juice that makes people who they are, and they will happily prattle on about it for hours, with little further prompting from you, mostly. However, you should be prepared to share a bit in return. Back and forth is what keeps the conversation flowing. Also, I find the best conversations are often between 3 people rather than 2, so bring a socializing friend or business partner and mingle as a pair to break the ice, then find a nice rhythm and break off into separate small pairings or groups that check in with each other regularly. This can also help keep you from getting stuck in one conversation or group for too long and not making another connection.
Think of networking as writing your name in the yearbook of a few great friends, rather than spraying a crowd widely with your generic contact details. I spoke to a gentleman who proudly crowed about giving away over 100 business cards at a 2-day conference. I asked him which person was the most memorable, and in what order he intended to contact his favorite new people, and his smile faded a bit. I could tell he could barely remember the last person he spoke to, let alone the first.
Consider this: If you met someone in a hallway and they said, "Hi I'm Joe Escrow and I have a very special offer for you, it's just $19.95 if you buy now", would you want to continue your conversation with this person? Probably not. But if you met someone who said, "Hi, I'm Jerry, I'm passionate about FSC-certified wood being used in San Francisco renovations", you're more likely to not only remember this person, but want to continue the conversation later, when you find you have a question about this topic. Networking is not about gathering as many business cards as possible, but strategically discovering how you can help other people in your network, while helping yourself.
Another great hint: I write the name and date of the event, the reason I attended if it isn't obvious from the event title, and the conversation I had with the person on the back of their business card before I go on to the next person. Then, on the next business day, I drop them a note saying how much I enjoyed meeting them, and continue the conversation with another probing question, or an opportunity for them to display their expertise. I then ask how ~I~ can help them. 90% of the time, I get an answer back, and have cemented a good start to a business relationship. If you have one of those fancy electronic address books in your cell phone or tablet that allows you to enter the person's details and a note, by all means use that, but the key is to actually follow up with a conversation after the event, and I find a physical card with a note on the back prompts me to take action in a way an electronic entry in a database does not. Your mileage may vary.
Also, a note on business cards; next month I will be posting an 'oldie but good-y' blog I wrote about greener business card printing, so check back to learn more about making sustainable printing decisions.
Finally, don't feel like you have to be the first one in the door and the last one to leave. Attend the event, make a few solid contacts, and leave satisfied. But don't forget to stop by the main desk and thank your host, and pick up a business card to send an email thank you if the host is not available in person. Guests with good manners will be invited back, and that's sustainable networking at its best.