How to connect at a networking event

When you walk into a networking reception, what’s the first thing you do?

Find the bar of course! And if you want to find the least crowded bar, look for the ones in the back. They’re almost always less crowded. Now that you have a drink, what’s next? Getting some food of course. So you go for the least crowded food station.

If this is your preferred way to work a networking reception then your goal seems to be to drink and eat by yourself while you hang around and wait for someone you know to spot you and come over to say “hello.” That’s not playing the networking game, that’s playing solitaire.

Waiting for someone to interact with you might work if you’re handing out free tickets to a Katy Perry – Russell Brand cage match, but it is not a great way to meet new people. And the real value of a networking event is to make new friends, catch up with old friends, and see if you can work an invitation from one of the sponsors who’s hosting an after-party in their seven-room suite.

Personally, I have no problem walking into a networking event where I don’t know anyone. In fact, I think it’s fun. Here are some tips to help you be a proactive networker at your next reception.

Realize that everyone wants to talk to someone. However, most people just don’t feel comfortable walking up to people they don’t know and starting a conversation. But aren’t you relieved and pleased when you’re alone and someone you don’t know starts a conversation with you?

So how about a different opening gambit; don’t head right for the bar. Walk up to someone you don’t know, who doesn’t have a drink, and say – pay close attention here, this is tricky – “Hi, I’m Matt Hill” (Using my name, of course, will usually cause them to turn and run, use your own name).

What will happen is, they will tell you their name and that’s how a conversation starts. And sometimes there’s even an ice-breaking networking game in place so you can move to that next. After that, ask them, “Want to go over to the bar and get a drink?” or “Want to go over a get a bite to eat?”

If you do find yourself in line for a drink or in line for an organic herb-encrusted farm-raised tuna roll, then you can ask a different ice-breaking question like, “Are you as excited as I am to taste the tuna?” Okay, maybe not. How about: “So how long have you been coming to this conference?” or “What did you think of the morning speaker and their Top 10 Strategies for Embezzling Your Budget?” My point is, most people are a little shy about starting a conversation because they haven’t prepared any ice-breaking questions. But once a conversation gets going most people are usually fine.

I also like to be a Connector. As a Connector, once I get a conversation going I ask them if they’d like to meet some other attendees that I know. They always say “yes.” So I escort them over and introduce them. At my last networking event, I connected a lot of people by doing a lot of escorting. My escort service has really caught the attention of the Conference Board.

To summarize:

  1. A good networker also commits to walking up to at least three people they don’t know and introducing themselves.
  2. A good networker asks questions. Prepare for your next networking event by having some ice-breaking questions ready. Start with introducing yourself. Then go for the networking game. Then ask a questions about them: How long they’ve been a attending, what they do, where they’re from, how they’re enjoying the conference so far, etc.
  3. A good networker is genuinely interested in meeting new people, finding out about them, asking follow-up questions, finding areas of mutual interest, and knows they can learn something from everyone.
  4. A good networker doesn’t talk about business until the other person brings it up. Don’t look at networking events as a perfect, captive sales opportunity. Business will come up naturally. Let it happen that way.
  5. A good networker continues to connect and network throughout the entire conference, not just at the formal events.
  6. A good networker will look for opportunities to help other attendees in any way they can: offering to introduce them to other attendees and to any leadership people you know, offering to share a cab or car back to the airport, and offering to introduce them to another attendee who might be able to help them. Take the high road, it’s always the right road.


Matt Hill

Matt Hill has been speaking and training since 1983. He specializes in making his clients more effective with their face-to-face interpersonal skills. He has trained over 50,000 people in the U.S. and around the world. Matt lives in San Jose, CA with his wife, Lynn. They have three children; a daughter living in Boston, a son in grad school at CalPoly San Luis Obispo, and another daughter in at Chico St. University. If you’re ever in San Jose and want to take a mountain bike ride or play some tennis, call him.

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