I attended my first formal networking event in my second year of university. Having had no professional work experience and no clue what I wanted to do with my life, I made a number of newbie mistakes, which included (but was not limited to): 1. Wearing open toe heels a couple inches too high, with tights; 2. Huddling with my 4 friends in a corner, waiting for professionals to approach our fairly large group; and 3. When I finally hit it off with someone, I didn’t ask for their card or any way to contact them.
On the bright side, everyone I spoke to was incredibly friendly and seemed to expect that as inexperienced 19-year-olds, we really were there for guidance. So I left that networking event feeling great – mostly because I had broken the ice, knew the ropes, and assumed that networking events would only get better from there.
And in some ways I was right! Once the ice is broken and you’ve gone to at least one, you have a good idea of what the vibe in the room is like, the student vs. professional dynamic, and how much preparation you need before conversing with someone. However, I must admit that for me at least, networking didn’t get any easier. I still had nerves, and while I figured out how to dress the part, I often found it hard to ‘fake-it-till-I-make-it’. That being said, while there are some elements out of your control, most of it is in your hands. With good preparation, you can stand out in any networking event – or at the very least, not feel like an idiot.
Without further ado, here are some key ways to behave at a networking event:
Dress to Impress
I had to start with the obvious. For all the networking events that I’ve been to, the dress code was business professional. What does that mean? Check it out here: https://www.sph.emory.edu/careers/documents/ProfessionalDressforSuccess.pdf. The first thing people will notice about you is your appearance, so make sure you look polished and professional, which will translate to successful and dependable. It can also help you feel more confident, and feel like you are qualified for the position of whoever you’re speaking to. It’ll give you that extra boost of confidence that recruiters want to see in someone they may hire. Look good, feel good, do good; essentially, fake it till you make it. Pro tip: ensure you have perfect hygiene (oral and body).
Do Your Research and Come Prepared
Before going to a networking event, if you can, do your research about who is going to be there and who would be a good mentor/information-sharer or who could potentially set you up with an interview. If there’s no way in figuring that out before, at least have some general questions about the career field or company that you could ask variations of. Often, there will be some kind of presentation at the beginning which will introduce the company representatives, and you can zero in on who you think would be most useful to you. Be sure to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions that will help you learn something from every interaction but also create stimulating conversation, which will make you more memorable.
Don’t Mark Anybody as ‘Useless’
One of my close friends who got hired right of university was asked to represent her company at a networking event. Seeing as she looked young and introduced herself as a recent graduate, a couple of students got comfortable with her and assumed she didn’t have any hiring power. What they did instead was not bother trying to impress her, and instead asked her: “What did you say in your interview as your greatest weakness so that you could get this job?”
She was extremely shocked and even offended, and after the networking event, the hiring manager had approached her and asked her for recommendations. She wanted to know who impressed her, and who she didn’t think would be a good fit. Moral of the story? Don’t dismiss anyone as ‘useless’ or assume that someone is going to be a ‘buddy’ just because they may seem close to you in age. You should ask questions about how they like their new position, what skills helped them get there or are essential in the job, and even give them a brief background of yourself and see if they think you’d be a good fit or if you need to add something else to your resume first. People at networking events want to help you – so make sure you’re helping yourself, and not self-sabotaging.
You want to make yourself memorable. Therefore, make sure you make a solid introduction at your first meeting with a professional. Shake their hand and say your name clearly. If there are a lot of people speaking to them, politely wait a few feet away until they are finished. After you introduce yourself, give them a one-sentence introduction of who you are and what you’re interested in and why you want to speak to them, and then make sure to ask a lot of good questions – but keep it natural, don’t make it feel like an interrogation. Make sure you’re practicing active listening, and be engaged. If there are people waiting for you to be done, don’t elongate it longer than 5 minutes. Politely acknowledge the people waiting, and ask if there is any way you can keep in touch. They may offer you a business card or may offer to accept your LinkedIn invitation – take what you can get, and as you say your goodbye, mention your name again: “It was very nice speaking with you, John, again my name is _______. Thank you and we’ll keep in touch.”
This makes you look confident, polite, and professional; you will definitely stand out.
If you had a great chat with someone at the event, you should definitely follow up with either an email or a LinkedIn message, assuming you had asked to keep in touch and they had agreed. Mention something you had spoken about at the event, and if the event was linked to a job posting, mention that you learned a lot at the event and you will be applying for the position because of the fruitful conversations you had with the knowledgable representatives.