How to Network at an Event

how-to-network-at-an-eventNetworking at in-person events like conferences and cocktail parties is one of the most challenging of all types of networking.

If you are shy or introverted, then going out and networking at in-person events may be even more difficult for you.

You may even hate face-to-face networking events. OK, that’s fine. Unfortunately though, even if you hate in-person networking, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass.

I’d love to tell you in today’s social media-fixated culture, you can simply give up on in-person networking events, but that would be a lie. In fact, old fashioned, face-to-face networking is one of the best activities you can engage in for your career or your business, hands down.

But there is good news. The best way to overcome the many challenges of face-to-face networking is to have a plan for how to network in advance.

Without a plan, you will likely waste a lot of time, or the experience will be not much fun. The good news is it’s very easy to develop a plan for how to network at an event that you can use repeatedly.

Here are 8 tips for how to network at an event:

1. Have a positive attitude

The first, and most important, step is to have a positive attitude going into any networking session, happy hour, cocktail party or conference. If you aren’t thrilled about coming to the event, then you might as well not go, because showing up without a positive attitude will send a message to everyone else that you are not interested in them.

2. Dress Appropriately for the Occasion

My friend Antonio Centeno has written a wonderful overview of how to dress appropriately for a networking event over at the Art of Manliness. In fact, the first time I met Antonio was at a conference, and he stood out to me as someone I wanted to meet because of how well-dressed he was.

Wearing the right attire to a networking event cannot be understated, as people will be making snap judgments about you. So you should aim to dress 10% better than everyone else in the room.

You should also be sensitive to the industry you are in so that your attire is appropriate. People dress more casually in the entertainment and advertising industries and more formally in the financial services industry.

3. Bring Business Cards

I don’t understand people who show up to a networking event without business cards. You should have a well-designed card, even if you don’t have a job, with your phone number and contact information. It’s easy to order an inexpensive but good-looking stack of business cards any of a number of online services, such as Vistaprint.

You should have a goal of getting rid of as many of these cards as possible. Pretend your business cards are on fire if you have to. If you have trouble asking people for their business card in return, then the best thing you can do is to practice, practice, practice. It will get easier.

I also recommend putting your business cards somewhere easily accessible before walking in to the event, so that you don’t have to dig around your wallet or purse in order to fish out a card. If the cards are more easily accessible, you are more likely to exchange cards with someone.

I also recommend keeping a scrap of paper or small notebook with you so that you can jot down someone’s contact information if they do, heaven forbid, fail to bring business cards. Do not rely on them to email you as I’ve found most people who forget to bring a business card will also forget to email you a follow up with their contact information (even if they promise they will email you – they won’t).

4. Do Research in Advance

One great tip is to research the people who you may meet at the event well before you arrive. Find out if the event you are going to publishes a list of attendees in advance. If there is an advance list, you can identify people who are coming who you want to speak with at the event. Services like and often publish attendee lists.

In her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (affiliate link), author Dorie Clark profiles one successful executive who ‘stalked the biographies’ of people he admired. These days, websites like LinkedIn makes it very easy to research peoples’ career histories. Given how accessible information is online these days, I think you are more likely to commit a faux pas by not knowing details about someone’s background than you are to commit a foul by knowing details about them.

In fact, not doing research in advance can even be embarrassing. I went to a small dinner in San Francisco recently where I ended up sitting next to the wife of a famous author of a book about entrepreneurship. This book had been on my ‘must read’ list for months. The dinner conversation inevitably turned to the husband’s book and I could only sit there, helpless, like I was stuck on mute. I had nothing to contribute. (I also didn’t want to admit I hadn’t read the book yet.)

If I had done research in advance, I might have known this woman would be there and been more prepared by having read the book.

5. Arrive on Time

Arriving on time sends a message that you are disciplined, organized and respectful. In addition, I find that arriving to a partially empty room is easier than arriving to a full room. When you arrive to a room early, you are forced to meet the few other early arrivers.

When you arrive late, then the whole room may be full and it can be more awkward to walk up to someone at random and introduce yourself.

6. Avoid the Hors D’Oeuvres Table

Few things are less attractive than a person talking with a mouth full of food. If you must eat, keep it clean and neat and do not open your mouth while eating. Try to eat quickly.

If you can avoid the hors d’oeuvres table, then you should. Most networking events are short – between 1 to 2 hours. Any time spent at the buffet is going to be a wasted opportunity. You are literally leaving money on the table. Think of it this way: those cheese and crackers are not really “free” – they are actually costing you money in terms of lost business and opportunities.

7. Look People in the Eye and Shake Hands

Studies have shown that people who look others in the eye are naturally perceived as being more powerful, warm, personable, and attractive. I am always perplexed when I meet someone and their eye contact is fleeting or distracted. By contrast, when I meet someone who makes solid eye contact, I immediately have a feeling that this person is warm and engaging.

On a related note, it is also important to have a firm and strong handshake. When you are meeting people, extend your hand and grip like you mean it. No ‘limp fish’ here, people.

8. Set a Goal for the Event

When I worked in politics earlier in my career, I worked for a number of politicians who would attack networking mixers with the ferocity of a pitbull. Although politicians get a bad rap most of the time (often deserved), there is a reason why they do this — because it is effective.

If I told you that you could make more money in your career by really embracing networking events, would you take these events more seriously? I’m betting the answer is yes.

I find that the best way to teach yourself how to network at an event effectively is to set a solid goal for each event. Your goal could be the number of people you speak to, or number of business cards collected, or number of follow up appointments scheduled. Whatever your goal is, just make sure you set a goal and follow through with it.

Go Home Happy

After a face-to-face networking event, you should walk away with a bit of a skip in your step from the people you met and relationships you’ve already started to develop. If you go away from a networking event and don’t feel excited about it, then maybe you are going to the wrong kinds of networking events or haven’t set clear goals for your career or business.

The bottom line is you should find a networking event, get out there, and meet some people.

I’m sure you have some other ideas about how to network at an event. What tips do you have? Please share them with everyone else below!

Photo credit: takomabibelot/Flickr