If asked, seven out of ten people will tell you they hate networking events. And yet, we generally recognize they’re necessary. Why? Because we all need strategic business relationships—those relationships with people who can really help you grow toward your personal and professional goals. Certain individuals can help accelerate your ability to achieve your goals. I call these “right people” pivotal contacts. If you don’t have a portfolio full of them, you need networking events.

Pivotal contacts are leaders among their peers. They are “movers and shakers” in their companies, industry verticals, communities. Your pivotal contacts are typically one or two business stature levels above yours. Does that mean they’re out of reach? No—not if you know how to use networking events strategically, to open doors that accelerate your access to them.

There are really only three things you can accomplish at any networking event:

  • Build Rapport. Demonstrate that you are personable, engaging, well-read and well-spoken, likable.
  • Establish Credibility. Ask questions that show you know your stuff. This is much more important than any answers you provide! Through your questions, you ascertain whether an individual can be strategic in helping you achieve your goals.
  • Determine Next Steps – if any! If you have achieved rapport and credibility, you’ve probably discovered something you can do for this individual. In strategic relationships, performance trumps all—which makes this your opportunity to deepen a temporary connection by offering a next step and delivering on it. (But only if you’ve determined this individual is indeed worth further investment of your time.)

Rapport, credibility, next steps; that’s it. To make those fundamentals work for you at future networking events, focus on three key areas:

Mindset. Pick events where you can engage and focus on your target audience. You really can’t build any meaningful relationships at these networking events—you can only lay the groundwork, through the three steps above. So pick your events carefully. Choose only those that will be “target-rich environments,” where your most likely target audience will be in attendance. To choose wisely, you will need clear goals for your networking. Relationship-centric goals come in three types: direct (quantifiable), influence (likely to help things to fall in place on your behalf), and equity (intangible brand-builders). Which outcome will you focus on in at networking events?

Roadmap. Act strategically before, during, and after, leaving nothing to chance. Map out your calendar for the month with the most compelling events. This is your chance to cast a wide net, so include events that extend your circle of influence—if you’re running into the same people everywhere you go, your circle is too small. Take more chances! Research whether your pivotal contacts attend. Event organizers can help.

When you attend an event, show up early and leave late. Engage only as many individuals as you feel comfortable with; don’t rush. Choose opening questions that plant a seed of interest. (No, I’m not going to give you a “perfect” opening question: you have to come straight from your own authenticity.) Use your emotional intelligence to judge how best to make each conversation partner feel comfortable; it’s not just what you say, but how you are, that makes a positive first impression. You can buy drinks for others if you feel moved to do so and it is appropriate to the setting. Really interesting conversations deserve your generosity. But professional networking events aren’t date nights, so keep it polished and professional. Give your focused attention to others. Listen more than you speak. While your aim is to engage and influence, you want to leave them wanting more. If you sense a potential strategic relationship, offer to exchange business cards.

The toughest act for most networkers is the disappearing act. How can you disengage, so as not to spend 45 minutes with one person? It’s easier than you think. For example, if you see someone else you know, you can introduce them—then ease away, leaving them to get to know each other. If you notice someone else you’d like to meet, you can excuse yourself by saying you need to talk with someone. And don’t forget, you can simply maneuver the conversation to a close by offering a handshake and saying, “It’s been nice to meet you.” Most people will instinctively pick up on the cue and respond likewise. After all, they didn’t come to this event to spend 45 minutes with you, either.

After the networking event, follow up. As soon as possible, pull out the business cards you’ve collected. On the backs, write when and where you met, some context of the conversation, and any next steps. Become brilliant at offering follow-ups that deliver unique value based on what you learned about each contact. That might include introducing that contact to someone else of interest or value, or sending a report or article you mentioned in your conversation. Add those steps to your calendar. Be absolutely 100 percent reliable in following through on anything that can deepen that momentary contact. Send a personal, hand-written note and you’re dramatically better off than an impersonal “nice to have met you” email.

Toolset. Always carry plenty of business cards, a pen, and a pocket note holder. Dress at the level of the pivotal contacts you aspire to meet—don’t stint on your professional appearance. Your toolset also includes your calendar, to-do list, and any other self-management tools you use, because networking requires your attention before, during, and after ever event.

Plan your networking event schedule;, show up prepared to maximize the time you invest; and follow through in ways that deliver value—not just a transaction! If you are engaging, adding value to every interaction, and delivering on short-term commitments, your behavior will elevate you above the noise.

Remember, There are really only three things you can accomplish at any networking event: You can build rapport, establish criteria, and determine if any next steps are needed. Networking is casting a wide net with large holes. You go to meet lots of people—and let those who are not relevant to you slip away with minimum fuss. To be sure you harvest sufficient return on the investment of your time, focus on the biggest fish in the net and appeal to them with your value-adds.

Nour Takeaways:

  1. Network with the goal of building rapport, establishing credibility, and determining next steps with potential pivotal contacts.
  2. Pay attention to your mindset, roadmap, and toolset: the three components of your networking strategy.
  3. Rise above the noise by following up with the right people, delivering unique value based on what you learned about them.
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