Over the past several months I’ve had the pleasure of attending many local networking and learning events. It’s been a fantastic experience, helping me to immerse myself into the Chicago business, tech, and creative communities after being heads down for far too long. The growth in Chicago has been exciting to see, and the tech and startup world here continues to boom.
These events are a great way to meet new people, connect with potential employers or prospective clients, learn about the latest trends and technologies, and even get inspired on current projects. However, showing up to networking events when you don’t know a sole can be an intimidating process. I’m not a shy person and like to think I can engage in conversation with the best of them. Like many of you, I’ve read numerous books and articles on how to network effectively. Yet I find that many of us still make a few rookie mistakes, or even presumably get so comfortable with a set of people that we forget how many newbies are around who could use our welcoming support.
Without diving deep into areas such as developing your pitch and personal brand, below are just a few protocol tips I had based on recent experiences. These may align to what you already know, or they may be entirely new ideas. Either way, I hope they help as you get yourself out there and navigate whatever community you choose.
- Be event agnostic – Yes, select events within your industry or profession, but also look slightly outside your domain. This is a great way to expand your network, create new learning opportunities, and maybe even shift or revise your career path. So much can be learned from the things we’re not exposed to every day. Take a chance.
- Attend with an open mind – While it’s good to have a plan of action before you arrive, be flexible so that you don’t miss meeting an interesting person or hearing about an innovative company. We never know how different an event will be until we get there, so having the agility to divert from your original plan can ensure we still get value from an event.
- Don’t forget the newbies – If you are returning to an event as a regular, understand that others are trying to mingle for the first time – support the process. I’ve seen far too many group clicks in some of the regular events I attend. So much so that the main objectives or benefits of these events become secondary and essentially fail.
- Don’t burn bridges, give people a break – We’ve all seen it. Even seasoned pros get introduced to someone and within a matter of seconds seemingly size them up and toss them aside, often times disrespectfully. Remind yourself that the young woman who was dismissed may one day be an important target client or even a potential employer. Give people a chance and help them feel welcome. They are likely nervous and just trying to find their way.
- Dress like a pro – I hate to sound too old school on this one, but unless the agenda calls for it, attending networking events in flip-flops and jeans just shows you don’t care. The modern office is of course quite casual, however these are people you are meeting for the first time and are impressionable – make the effort.
- It’s not the Dating Game – Don’t assume others are there to meet prospective romantic partners. I’ll share a story from my own recent experience. I met a gentleman at two separate professional events and had a nice conversation about his business. He asked for my advice on several matters, which I happily provided. The morning after the second encounter I received an email from him not even asking me out really, but suggesting I come and make him dinner – and asking what day worked for me. I was so angry by the blatant action, his outdated mentality, and the presumptuous tone that I would happily come cook for this person without really being asked. While I was professional in my response, I’d like to go on record by saying, to me, this was inappropriate. The context of the events and the conversation were strictly professional. Taking such a leap to a romantic nature is unfair and could make for a very uncomfortable future encounter. Don’t get me wrong; I completely understand meeting someone when and where you can. But unless there is obvious evidence by the other person that they too are interested, keep it off the table.
- Don’t blast the business cards – If you are currently unemployed, get yourself some professional business cards. MOO.com happens to be one of my favorites and offers a fantastic selection in a variety of templates, running the gamut on price point. But don’t assume you have to give every person you meet your card. Share them strategically, thoughtfully, with context, and some call-to-action. After all, you’re giving them your card because you want to stay connected and meet again, right?
- Relax and enjoy yourself – Most networking events are set around a tone of social interaction. Give yourself a break. Understand that everyone is there for the same reasons. Take a deep breath and just enjoy the process. You just never know what the world will bring.
What rules of protocol would you add?