From the recent grad just breaking into their career to the veteran executive, the ability to network is a powerful tool in the professional’s arsenal. We touched base with networking guru, BIG YAM VP of Business Development Ryan Smeets, to give us a master class in networking. Here’s what you need to know.
HOW DO YOU PREP BEFORE ATTENDING A SMALLER NETWORKING EVENT?
For smaller events – like a cocktail hour or a local thing – I’ll make sure to look at the registration list to see who will be attending. I’m looking for people who are intriguing to me. That way I know to look for them, or even arrange a meeting at the event.
WHAT KINDS OF EVENTS ARE WORTHWHILE FOR NETWORKING?
I personally like to stray away from anything that does not allow for quiet, one-on-one conversations. I look for events where there is going to be at least 30 minutes to an hour of networking time. That way, there’s time for me to introduce myself and really get to know a few other people.
HOW DO YOU NETWORK AT A BIG EVENT, LIKE A MULTI-DAY SUMMIT?
I’ll research what the topics are in advance. If I find something that interests me, I’ll reach out to the speakers via email or LinkedIn ahead of time. I’ll say something like, “Hi, I noticed that you’re going to be speaking at X conference this week. I would love to compare notes with you on this topic. Is there a time that we can get together before or after your presentation? I can tell you a little more about what it is we’re up to and the clients we are serving.” For a lot of these people, they already have their presentations ready to go, but they may not be sticking around the conference. So it’s important to try to get on their calendar in advance.
DURING THE EVENT
HOW DO YOU KICK THINGS OFF YOUR FIRST TIME IN A NEW GROUP?
If it’s my first time attending a group, I’ll try to find who is in charge and introduce myself to them. They typically know who else is there. If I can strike up a conversation with them and let them know what my intentions are, they are going to be much more adept at introducing me to the right people.
HOW DO YOU STRIKE UP A MEANINGFUL CONVERSATION WHEN NETWORKING?
Look at their nametag. When you see what city, company or industry they are representing, you can say, “Oh, you’re in Scottsdale, Arizona? Tell me about Scottsdale.” If you do it that way, always asking, “Tell me about …” they’ll find something that they want to talk about. And then you’ll find your entry point into the conversation.
I look for similarities – region, line of work, where they want to school – so I can build up a rapport. This is essential to striking up a conversation. I like conversations to feel natural. Think about a party you go to that’s not professional. You gravitate towards the people you typically find interesting.
WHEN DO YOU TYPICALLY SLIP A BUSINESS CARD OR VALUE PROPOSITION INTO THE CONVERSATION?
I’ll often introduce myself with, “Hi, I’m Ryan from BIG YAM. Have you heard of us? No? Do you mind if I tell you a little bit about us?” I’m asking for permission. If I get permission, I go where the questions lead. If I sense some hesitation by the other party, then I try to be more curious about the other person, weaving our company into the conversation.
I also ask for permission to give them my business card, saying something like, “Hey, do you mind if I give you my business card? I would love to continue this conversation via email.” I think permission is the one thing people forget. If you go straight to the business card, they are looking at the card instead of at you. They’re also wondering what you want and what you’re trying to sell them. Try to speak in a natural way first. Then they will feel safe when you approach the idea of giving them a card.
HOW SOON DO YOU FOLLOW UP AFTER MEETING SOMEONE AT A NETWORKING EVENT?
I follow up immediately. This is the biggest differentiator when it comes to networking at conferences. Unless you make a real connection and somebody tells you they’re going to get in touch, it rarely happens. People finish the conference, go home to their families and then spend the next week digging out of the emails that piled up in their inbox while they were away. I like to send an immediate follow-up email reminding them about our connection and allow the person at least a week before I follow up again.
ANY TIPS FOR FOLLOWING UP?
I prefer to follow up with an email, sometimes even including my picture at the event to jog their memory. I say something like, “Hey, person, it’s Ryan. It was great connecting at the such-and-such event. I was really interested to hear the challenges that you’ve been facing when it comes to on-boarding clients. Here’s an article or case study or something we learned that relates to that similar challenge.” I always leave a call to action or what’s in it for that person.
If I follow up with a LinkedIn invitation, I always customize the message. What’s worse than getting a LinkedIn invite that says, “Ryan would like to add you to his professional network?” That’s just a canned template and you know that they didn’t put any thought into it. Just take an extra second, personalize it and craft something that the person is going to actually notice.
If that person responds, we’re building a relationship. If they don’t, I wait a week and then ping them again, with, “Hey, did you see this email? I’m sure you’re digging out of email jail. Let me know when we can reconnect.” If they respond, it gives me a sense of whether the relationship is worth pursuing – was I interesting to them? Did I leave any sense of intrigue behind?
DO YOU ALWAYS DRESS UP FOR NETWORKING EVENTS?
There are two things I consider when I decide how to dress for a networking event. The first is that I like to dress in a way that represents the other people I work with. Our agency is pretty casual, so I find myself dressing more and more casual as I represent our company. If it’s a formal event, I will wear a suit jacket and tie to show respect for the other attendees.
PRACTICE YOUR NETWORKING
Every month AZAG pulls together a roundup of industry events that are perfect for practicing your networking skills. Be sure to check the blog at the beginning of each month for new opportunities to get involved in our local business community.