As we emerge from the flurry of winter industry shows and prepare ourselves for the next round of summer shows, networking is on a lot of minds. Everyone seems eager to make meaningful — and profitable — connections. Yet many seem at a loss as to how to go about doing so. I’m often asked what I think the secret is to good networking. My answer? Come prepared and be ready to get uncomfortable.
For many of us who may be introverted or socially uncomfortable, networking in social situations can feel completely overwhelming. If you’re new in the industry or a young professional, you may have no idea where to even start. You’re not alone.
This might come as a surprise to some of you, but while I’m a good tap dancer come performance time, I’m also a loner who must push myself to make dinner dates and networking meetups when I’m at industry conferences. It’s not inconceivable that you may never be able to find me between my speaking sessions at big events. I give up a lot of my energy to those I’m helping when I’m “on,” and I need to be by myself to refill my tank. I tend to retreat when I’m not on stage.
Nevertheless, industry shows are often the only place you’ll have the opportunity to have face time with important contacts who work cross-country. I run a business and therefore I must network constantly — regardless of my introvertish inclinations. You must always be open to the possibility that every single person you make a connection with in the context of a work event could represent a real opportunity. So, what can a person do to be more memorable to others, especially if she/he might naturally be more of an introvert? My four Ps: Prepare, pre-schedule, prioritize, and push yourself.
If you aren’t prepared for networking, you aren’t going to make much of a memorable impression when it happens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked for business cards from folks I meet at shows, only to be told they don’t have one, or they’re out. The easiest thing you can do to make networking successful is show up with enough business cards. Even better, make a small postcard or other piece of memorable marketing you can hand out to key contacts. Also, go through vendors and speakers on the schedule before you show up. Know who is attending so you know who you want to connect with in advance. Being prepared makes a great impression and makes you feel successful in your networking interactions.
One of my strategies is to schedule dinners and business meetings with key contacts — or people I want to meet for the first time — before an event happens. That way it’s on my event schedule and I won’t be tempted to leave that encounter to chance. Trust me, if I can find an excuse to punk out and hang out in my hotel room by myself, I will. I don’t get to indulge that inclination if I pre-commit to scheduled meetups.
An important component of good networking is that you don’t have to see everyone when you go to industry events. We are all there for business and we need to make sure our time is spent wisely. While it’s tempting to only want to hang out with friends you like at industry events, that’s not always going to help you achieve your goals. Sure, there is a nice social component to all industry events — it’s always great to see people we know and like. But if you aren’t also prioritizing strategic business or career connections, then you’re missing the point of the event. As tempting as it may be, don’t have lunch and dinner with the same friends every day you’re at a show. Make sure you prioritize new key contacts and networking opportunities along with your social time.
You may know Brie Arthur, effervescent author of “The Foodscape Revolution.” She and I like to joke we are two sides of the same coin. While we both spend most of our time on green industry communications, she is clearly the bright shiny side of the coin; an extrovert extraordinaire whose endless energy for networking I admire greatly. Brie pulled a whammy on me when I was at the North Carolina Green and Growin’ show this past January. She wasn’t even at the show, but that didn’t stop her from networking on my behalf. Out of the blue, I got a group text from her, which included a friend of hers, with a suggestion that because we were both at the show, we should meet for dinner that night. Insert introvert nightmare. I totally had a date with room service and my unfinished PowerPoint presentation.
Nevertheless, I vetoed myself and texted her friend, who was happy to have a dinner date. I ended up meeting and having a wonderful dinner with the talented Erin Weston of Weston Farms. Of course I needed to meet Erin! And I’m so very glad I did. Don’t punk out.
No matter your strategy when it comes to networking, I truly believe the best way to make a memorable impression on people is to be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be authentically you — just make sure you show up ready to show up.