One of the best ways for entrepreneurs to socialize with colleagues, customers and potential clients is at networking events. Corporate gatherings, conferences, happy hours and cocktail parties provide an opportunity for you to meet new people and reconnect with old acquaintances.
However, if you have difficulty mingling in a room full of strangers, connecting with other professionals can be a difficult and uncomfortable process. Regardless of how you feel, networking is undeniably an effective way to meet people who can provide new opportunities and help you grow your business.
Many entrepreneurs regularly attend networking events, but few study or practice effective networking. The more practiced you become at starting conversations with strangers, the less anxious you'll be. Your confidence will attract others and help you become much more than just another business card.
To become a master mingler, employ these tips at the next networking event you attend.
Hone your public speaking skills. Conversations require just as much speaking ability as a presentation. Practice your skills whenever you can. Take a public speaking class or join a Toastmasters club in your area. When you feel prepared, give presentations at industry meetings or offer to give a guest lecture at a local community college or university.
Start with a handshake. The type of handshake you extend to a stranger speaks volumes about you and your intentions. When you approach someone new at a networking event, start your conversation with a firm handshake. As you greet the individual, make eye contact, smile, extend your hand and introduce yourself. This nonverbal communication will help you build rapport before you even say a word.
Win the name game. Remembering names is an essential skill in conversations. When others hear you say their name, it makes them feel more connected to you. If you've just met someone for the first time, use his name frequently in conversation. When you forget a name, simply extend your hand and say your own name. The other person will most likely introduce himself in return.
Show interest. Many entrepreneurs use a popular but ineffective approach while networking. Instead of building relationships, they collect and hand out as many business cards as they can. To form professional connections, approach new acquaintances with a genuine interest in their businesses, opinions and hobbies. When you initiate the conversation, ask open-ended questions to show your sincerity.
Ask a connector for help. A personal introduction is a winning strategy to start conversations at networking events. If you're a first-timer at an event and nervous, ask the host or an influential contact to introduce you to others. Most people will gladly introduce you to other entrepreneurs in the room.
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Give a sincere compliment. Everyone is happy to receive a compliment, even from a new connection. Use what you know about the person to choose the best accolade. It's advisable to compliment someone on his or her business accomplishments or talents. Compliment a physical attribute only when you don't have anything else to go on. You could say something like, "You look very sharp in that blazer."
Share opportunities. Use networking events as a way to tithe your social and professional capital. Seek out entrepreneurs in different industries. When you start a conversation, ask industry-specific questions. Invite the person to share her opinion and then communicate your perspective. Always be on the lookout for potential partnerships and other business opportunities. Train your ears to hear problems so you can present solutions.
Learn to tell a story. The best way to form connections in networking conversations is by telling your story. Everyone has a story to tell. To discover the other person's story, ask the right questions. You could say something like, "Who is a special person in your life who influenced who you are today?" It's a personal question and will help others to open up.
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Jacqueline Whitmore is an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla. She is the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin's Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, 2005).