CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's called netWORKING -- not netDRINKING, not netEATING and not netSITTING, according to Ivan Misner, founder of Business Network International and author of "Networking Like a Pro: Turning Contacts into Connections."
Misner says one should consider networking as more like farming, not hunting. It's about cultivating relationships, not a one-shot hunting expedition such as a premature solicitation to someone you have just met. That, he says, is not networking, but direct selling.
The real strategy to networking is to build relationships. Give more than you take. Focus on what you can do for someone else, not what you want to gain. It is far more important to understand someone's needs before you tell them about yours. Get to know them as a person and perhaps a friend, not as a prospect. People prefer to do business with people they like -- when times are tough, a client may leave you, but a friend won't.
With the holiday party season in full swing and a plethora of networking opportunities available, keep the following tips in mind:
Arrive early. When you get to a function early, chances are the atmosphere will be a bit more quiet and calm. It may be easier to find someone who is not yet involved in a conversation or settled into a group. This will help provide an opportunity to get to know a few people before the rest show up, according Leil Lowndes, author of "How to Instantly Connect with Anyone." When you arrive late, chances are most people will already be in engaged in conversation and it is much harder to break into a group.
Look the part. First impressions do matter. Proper dress shows respect not only for you, but those in attendance as well. This is not the time to dress in that tight skirt, revealing blouse, T-shirts or tennis shoes. The way you dress can alter one's perception of you.
Be cognizant of how you enter a room. Delay going straight to the bar. Circulate first. Show some constraint and confidence that you can communicate without the crutch of a drink.
Try to eat appetizers with your left hand in order to keep you right one free to shake hands if necessary. Nobody likes to shake a greasy, wet, cold hand.
Limit your alcohol consumption.
Be aware of your body language. Never look over or past someone while speaking to them. Maintain eye contact and be present. Letting your eyes wander looks as though you are searching for someone more important.
When trying to break into a conversation, choose one that is taking place among three or more people. When there are only two, chances are the conversation may be a little more intimate and harder to enter.
If it is your office party, remember the word "office." It is a business function cloaked in social context. This is not the time to relive those former fraternity party days. While your boss may not be watching you directly, someone else may be, and their opinion could impact your career.
Be curious. Most of us want to talk about what we want to convey, but people would much rather speak with someone who is interesting and interested in them. Also, try to use their name in the conversation. People like to hear their name, and it can help you remember it later.
Listen. Networking is about listening to the other person. Many would point out that that is why we have two ears but only one mouth.
Be a connector by introducing people.
Have business cards in an easily accessible area and make sure they are clean and accurate. Don't go around handing them out as if you are running for political office. Strict business etiquette dictates that you never give your card to someone unless they ask for one. To get around this, simply ask if you may provide your card to them as a future reference. Also, if someone asks for your card, then it is polite to ask for his in return, even if you don't necessarily want one.
Avoid namedropping; otherwise it may appear as if you have self-esteem issues or are simply trying too hard to impress others.
Avoid over-aggressively working the room.
Avoid conversation landmines such as politics, your health, religion, others misfortune, age, weight, firings, layoffs or any other controversial subjects.
Follow up. After the event, make sure to promptly follow up with anyone to whom you promised to provide additional information, enjoyed meeting or found something of interest to them such as an article, book reference, website, etc.
Before attending a networking event, be prepared. Peruse newspapers, trade journals, websites and elsewhere for current information and events so that you can mentally formulate questions in advance to help with starting a conversation. Examples of conversation starters include:
"What's the most unique aspect of your business?"
"What's your biggest challenge?"
"What's your biggest wish for next year?"
"What do you like to do when you're not working?"
"Tell me more about ..."
To end a conversation
Recap the conversation in a positive way with a compliment and then a close. End with appreciation and be sure to use the person's name, says Debra Fine, author of "The Fine Art of Small Talk." This helps to let the person know that you were listening to them, For example:
"Jane, thank for your expertise concerning .... I really enjoyed hearing about ...."
"Bill, thank you for sharing your thoughts on ...; it was really helpful."
"Meg, it was wonderful to catch up on your new project. Let's plan on getting together soon."
"Jackie, I appreciate your thoughts on that issue. Thank you so much for sharing."
Then provide a nonverbal exit cue such as extending your hand to shake theirs or turning your shoulders slightly to indicate that you are finishing the conversation and that you intend to move on.
Popular businessman, columnist and bestselling author Harvey Mackay says the strongest networks are built on friendships. When attending a networking function, go with one goal in mind: to learn about other people. Try to connect on a level other than business. People bond over overlapping areas of interest, no matter what they are. You may leave with a good business contact, or, more important, a lasting friendship.
Pam Harvit, M.S., is a certified corporate etiquette and protocol consultant. You may request her services or email your questions to her at email@example.com.