When approached with preparation and purpose, networking events can lead to valuable connections that can help small businesses grow.
“They provide an opportunity to network and get to know peers in the same group and like business,” said Doris Glenn, an instructor for the Institute for Entrepreneurship with the Small Business Center at Central Piedmont Community College.
And, “sometimes you have an opportunity to barter for services you may not ordinarily be able to afford.” For example, an accounting business could trade bookkeeping services in exchange for marketing advice from a public relations company.
Glenn offered these tips for making the most of a networking event:
Be prepared: Make sure you approach the event with confidence and comfort with your message. Practice an “elevator speech,” or a short synopsis of your business or services, and be prepared to succinctly describe who you are, your skill set and your aspirations.
Bring a good supply of business cards and have them readily available to give people you meet at the event.
Arrive early: It’s important to know who else is attending the event. When you pick up your welcome badge, take note of other people who will be there.
“This will provide some indication of the dynamics of the group,” Glenn said.
Break the ice by introducing yourself right at the registration table. Get your creative conversation juices flowing, injecting humor if you feel comfortable doing so.
Keep your behavior professional: While networking events are social events, one of the most common mistakes people make is having too much fun at the expense of business.
“This may be a social event for some, but for a serious networker, this is work,” Glenn said. “Socializing will play second fiddle.”
Introduce yourself to people with a firm handshake, and look for an appropriate point in the conversation to begin your elevator speech. Don’t force it; the conversation should flow naturally.
Keep the conversation going by actively listening for commonalities, such as school alma maters, career paths or professional organizations.
“Discuss successes, especially work initiatives that demonstrate your team leadership skills and successful project implementations,” Glenn said. “Look for an opportunity to provide a solution for challenges discussed.”
Follow up: Look for future leads and opportunities. If appropriate, ask if you could schedule an appointment to discuss how your services could benefit his or her organization.
Hand out business cards, and use your smart phone to collect contact information if you are not given a business card in return.
For anyone who might not feel comfortable networking, Glenn suggests practicing beforehand and planning out a strategy for who to meet at the event.
“I notice that introverts have to put in just a little more effort because they are not naturally outgoing,” Glenn said. “If that introvert is not comfortable meeting lots of people, then target those individuals who you think could be a greater asset to your business.”
For extra practice, Glenn suggests visiting a local Toastmasters, an international organization dedicated to helping people improve public speaking and leadership skills.
“It allows the introvert, in a friendly setting, to learn the skills that may come naturally to the extrovert,” Glenn said.
All could benefit from practicing their elevator speeches and receiving feedback from Toastmasters members.
Glenn said that business is built on relationships.
“I think once you make the connectivity with others who can identify with the services and commodities you may be selling, that provides an opportunity for the small business owner to really grow your business,” she said.
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