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Networking Pro Tip: Make New Friends, Not New Contacts

Even after all my years in business, I still sometimes find big networking events a bit intimidating. I decided to ask my friend Sheelagh McNamara for some professional advice. Sheelagh is an executive voice, presence and presentation coach who frequently delivers one-day networking courses. She looks at the neuroscience as well as the practical application of how to enhance your impact when networking. Here’s what she said:

Networking! The very mention of the word brings most of us out in hives. I’ve yet to meet someone who goes off to a networking event punching the air with joy saying, “Yes! Another networking event!”

Before we look at the practical tips, there are a couple of things to think of ahead of time. Mental preparation is key.

Know your desired outcome and set realistic goals

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why is networking important?
  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Who or what types of people do I want to meet?

This helps to narrow the crowd into smaller, knowable groups, humanizing them so that they become less terrifying in your mind.

Set a goal to introduce yourself to a minimum of three people, not including those who introduce themselves to you. If you’re nervous find an event organizer/host and ask them to introduce you. It’s their job to make the event a success and your success is their success!

Shift your mindset

In my experience, truly effective networkers have some important traits in common:

  • They think about making friends, not contacts. Now that’s a big mindset shift!
  • They think of what they can do for others, not about what others can do for them
  • They behave in an approachable, friendly, warm, engaging and non-pushy manner
  • They’re truly interested in learning from others, and that’s why they’re good listeners

The best networkers are open-minded and value the opportunity to meet people they wouldn’t otherwise meet – and all under one roof!

Now, you’re ready to enter the room

First of all, breathe! Walk into the room softly exhaling and let your breath drop into the belly. If your shoulders are tense and high, you’re probably holding your breath. Stand tall, open your shoulders, smile and ensure your eyes are at eye level. Henry Kissinger said he would walk into a room and stand in a central position, never skulking around the edges.

Be brave and cut adrift from your friends. You’re not there to talk to them.

Make sure your badge is on your right hand side and your drink is in your left hand. Why? Because when we shake hands our eyes track to our left and their badge is then in your direct line of sight.

Scan the room and see if there are any singletons. Why not start with them? Say something simple like, “Hi, I’m Susan and I thought I’d introduce myself.”

Which groups?

It’s easiest to break into an odd-numbered group of three or more. With you, the number will be even, and it will be easier to re-form subgroups. Look for groups with a gap, and displaying open body language – hips are not all square to the group. Avoid groups that are engaged in intense conversation, or where one person is holding court. Avoid pairs unless their hips are at 90 degrees or they’re looking around.

Three steps to moving in:  Mirror, Signal, Maneuver

When you’re ready to join a group, approach and stand about three feet away. Then try these three steps:

  • Mirror – Mirror some of their behavior and body language
  • Signal – Make eye contact, smile, and nod to show you want to join
  • Maneuver – To join seamlessly, move in when there’s a pause

You’ve joined a group… now what?

After introducing yourself with your name and the other basics, spend a few minutes listening before adding to the conversation. Don’t try to take over. Build rapport and signal that you’re listening by slightly tilting your head, nodding, and sounding your assent (with cues such as “hmm,” “uh huh,” or “right”).

When you speak, ask open-ended questions to get others talking while you listen.

When you’re face-to-face with someone you really hoped to meet

Of course, listen, and be prepared with your 30-second elevator speech.  Also, have a hook – what’s the most interesting or memorable thing about you, your background or your goals for the future? Tell them enough to get them interested, and leave them wanting more.

Ask to speak again or meet up if appropriate, and follow up with an email the next day.

When it’s time to break away

You may find your time being monopolized by one person or group. If so, simply smile, say it’s been lovely to meet them but you must move on.

Move on to your back foot, open your hips to 90 degrees, and start to look outside the group. If you spot someone who’s looking to move in, smile, nod and gesture for them take your place.

So that’s how the pros do it! If you put these tips into practice at the upcoming Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference, you’ll make new friends and show companies looking for future ambassadors that you can network with skill.

Amelia Anderson is Managing Director, Assistant Treasurer of American Airlines. Amelia holds a BS degree in Finance and Economics and an MBA in Corporate Finance from Georgia State University in Atlanta. Sheelagh McNamara is a highly sought after executive voice, speech & presentation skills coach with an extensive client base throughout the UK, Europe, Canada and the United States. View Sheelagh’s TEDx Talk, The Heard Mentality.

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