Ever wish you had a time machine so you could travel back to a networking event to take back those horrible things you said? Have you ever engaged in a stimulating conversation with someone before you really know who you’re talking to, only to find out that you’ve been saying the wrong things to the wrong person? Maybe you’re simply challenged by trying to eat, hold your drink, shake hands and pass out business cards all at the same time.
Well, you’re not alone. We’ve all made mistakes at networking events, because – by their very nature – there are a lot of things that can go wrong….IF you’re not prepared! I have found that being prepared can help even the most socially inept, insecure or nervous person to come across like the talented professional they really are. As the author of “The Art of the Business Lunch ~ Building Relationships Between 12 and 2” (Career Press), I personally hosted more than 3,000 client lunches and attended more than 1000 networking events. I saw my sales increase by more than 2000%!
I am a professional keynote speaker and enjoy sharing “The Art of Successful Networking” with my audiences. I’ve found that most people have the same questions and fears, and that MOST of us are nervous or uncomfortable when put into a room full of strangers.
So, what are the biggest mistakes anyone can make at a networking event? I’m glad you asked! Here are my “Top 10 Biggest Networking Mistakes.” If you’re like most of us, you’ll identify with at least a few of these points. Once you know what to avoid, I’ll bet you will actually look forward to the tremendous opportunities that await you at your next event.
- “Surely one little drink won’t hurt!” Think again. Getting drunk or even a little sloppy in front of new acquaintances can ruin your chances of ever winning them over. Bad ideas start to sound good when you’re tipsy and you may even become inclined to share off-color jokes or reveal confidences that could sink your career. Drinking clouds your judgment, so take it easy! A great technique for cocktail mixers is to order something light and alternate with water or plain soda.
- Make sure you eat something first! You want to be able to focus on the conversation and meeting new people. You can’t do that with your mouth full of chicken or meatballs. If you’re off to a networking luncheon, remember that you can always stop and grab a bite on your way back to your office or your next sales call. And if you’re attending a cocktail mixer, grab a bite to eat as soon as you get there. I assure you it is IMPOSSIBLE to juggle a plate of food, a napkin, a cocktail, business cards (giving and receiving) AND shake hands. Remember that lunch was hours ago and any alcohol will be hitting an empty stomach! You’re likely to get drunk quickly. If possible, eat something on your way there. Worst case scenario? The food at the mixer is fabulous and you’re not hungry enough to pig out on all of it. When you arrive, head for the food, eat what you want, and then head over to the bar for your drink. You will be better able to network once you’ve had a bite to eat, plus you’ll have a free hand for card exchanges and handshakes.
- NEVER talk with food in your mouth! When I was writing my book, “The Art of the Business Lunch,’ absolutely everyone told me to include this advice. Apparently there are many business professionals who don’t know not to talk with their mouths full! Also, it’s good to take small bites so that if you are called upon to speak, you can quickly chew and swallow your food before speaking.
- Always be kind and courteous to everyone, no matter what! Servers are people, too. Being rude to someone, even if they’ve just spilled a drink on you, only makes you look bad. Remember that any networking event is an opportunity for people to get to know you. Do you want them to come away thinking you’re nasty or over-stressed? Accidents happen. How we react to them reveals our character. This is easier to remember when things are going well. Having a great reaction when things are bad is an opportunity to impress those around you.
- NEVER bad-mouth your competition. People aren’t stupid; they will figure out that if you are saying bad things about your competition, you may say bad things about them, too, when they aren’t looking. You can build better business relationships by out-servicing and out-performing your competition.
- AVOID awkward silence by being prepared for casual conversation. Whenever I suggest being prepared for casual conversation, my audiences are surprised that they never thought to do this! Over the course of 3,000 client lunches, I learned that I had better be well informed on a LOT of different topics. Try to watch 20 minutes of a national morning news show, read a variety of magazines including industry-specific publications, and be up on the latest in pop culture. Also, be up-to-date on industry news. This should give you a wide platform of knowledge so that you can participate in nearly any conversation. And avoid any controversial subjects – especially in a political year!
- Always tip generously! Whether the networking event you’re attending has a cash bar or a hosted bar, always tip your bartender or server generously. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s important to take care of the people who are taking care of you. If a new associate perceives you as cheap, they may be put off.
- Don’t sit with your friends. One of the hardest things for most of us to do is to mingle with strangers. We naturally gravitate toward our personal comfort zone, which means seeking out those people we already know and hanging out with them. While a networking event offers the opportunity to see old friends and associates, the main purpose is to meet new people so you can expand your circle. If you cling to the people you already know, how can you meet anyone new? There are several things you can do to overcome your reluctance to visit with strangers, including acting as though it was your party. Playing host or hostess is a great trick; bring a plate of appetizers or desserts over to your table or offer to get drinks for everyone. This makes a strong, incredibly positive impression.
- Don’t criticize ANYTHING! We’ve all been served terrible fare at networking events. Politicians joke about the endless “rubber chicken” dinners they attend while on the campaign trail. Making a big deal about a lousy buffet or fishy-smelling sushi appetizers won’t just leave a bad taste in your mouth! Those around you who may not have such a cultivated palate will be turned off, too. Everything – from the room to the turnout to the food should be referred to as “exceptional” or “outstanding.” People prefer to be around positive people, so always try to be positive about everything.
- Take your business cards or stay home! I have been handed many a phone number scribbled on a cocktail napkin. I promptly throw them away. A networking event is for business and cards are essential for so many reasons. They offer your name, your position or title, your company name, and various ways to contact you, including e-mail, direct phone line and even a cell phone number. A company website on your card eliminates any guesswork for someone who wants to know more about you or your company. Keep a stash of cards in your car so that if you run out or forget, you will have some handy.
Enjoying a social setting with new friends and associates is the best way to develop relationships. Between breakfasts, lunches and cocktail mixers, the average professional has more than 400 opportunities each year to meet new people and expand their network. Being prepared for these opportunities and knowing what behavior to avoid is the first step toward guaranteeing your networking success.
Robin Jay is a professional keynote speaker, award-winning author and corporate trainer. Robin is not just the “Queen of the Business Lunch,” but is a business relationship expert who shares the nuts-and-bolts of building profitable business relationships. Her book, “The Art of the Business Lunch ~ Building Relationships Between 12 and 2” (Career Press, 2006) has been sold in ten languages worldwide. She is a contributor to “The POWER of Mentorship” (POM) series of books, including “The Millionaire Within” and “For the Woman Entrepreneur,” and is also a contributor to the famed “Chicken Soup for the Soul” franchise of books with her entry in “Chicken Soup for the Wine Lover’s Soul” (Nov, 2007). Jay will also be a featured expert in “The POWER of Mentorship: The MOVIE,” due out December 6th, 2007. Robin is president of the Las Vegas Convention Speakers Bureau. For more information or to book Robin to speak at an event, visit her at http://www.RobinJay.com