What not to do at a networking event

I can’t help but smile and walk away shaking my head at many of the communication failures that I witness at networking events.

If people just had a better understanding of the goals of a networking event and of how certain behaviors are perceived, we’d have fewer incredibly socially awkward people.

Networking events are for expanding our networks, not selfish exploitation.

The Networking Event

The Network

There are many different types of networking events, and my definition may only apply to

business, industry, and job search events, but my tips will apply to social ones too.

As an individual in this world, your capabilities are limited by your own skills, the level of those skills, and the resources that you have. Communities of people allowed for specialization and outsourcing to accomplish richer life beyond what the individual was capable of.

Today, the community has been replaced by the department store, the mall, the yellow pages, and the Web. People don’t even know their neighbors, let alone what skills and resources their neighbors have. When working on a project, when skills or resources are needed outside of our own capabilities, we’re left fumbling in the dark. One doesn’t find professional skills at the department store or at the mall, and the yellow pages and the Web are a abstract and confusing view leading to a cold call.

The networking event is the way to restore the community through the establishment of connections to exchange leads and referrals for professional skills and resources.

The introduction

The introduction is the hardest part for a lot of shy people, and probably the reason why a lot of networking events serve alcoholic beverages. If you’re shy, by all means start with a drink to get loosened up, but please don’t drink so much where you’re slurring or can’t walk.

The proper introduction starts with a greeting and a handshake. The person that initiated the introduction speaks a greeting and their full name and offers their hand. The other person accepts the hand shake, follows with a greeting and their full name, and the hand shake ends.

Feel free to vary this slightly, but don’t turn the hand shake into a fist bump. Don’t mumble your name, or say it fast, especially if you have an “unusual” name. If you’re a shy mumbler, it’s okay, but first impressions count. Just this once in your entire social interaction with this person, state your name at a decently slow cadence in a clear and loud voice, and with a smile on your face.

Although this is the minimum required, and the connection can start, it’s normal to have a brief discussion of what the both of you do. “What does your company do?” or “What do you do?” are the common questions. It is not polite to go on about yourself. Introductions are a series of questions and answers to allow both people to determine how best they can hep each other. When both sides run out of questions, or the two of you are “interrupted”, it’s time for the connection to occur.

The connection

The networking event is all about the connection, which is the exchange of contact information. If you don’t know how to contact someone, then you haven’t added them to your network. In a network diagram, someone that you can’t communicate with is just a dot over in the corner, with no corresponding line connecting you to them. In my industry, a connection is often formed by the mutual following on Twitter on our smartphones right there on the spot. In most industries, this is done with the exchange of a business or calling card. Only one person really needs to hand out a card, as long as the recipient of the card follows up. If a connection may be vital, both sides will want to make sure and get contact information.

If during the introduction it seems like some type of exchange might occur now or in the future, it’s important to close the conversation indicating that you’ll follow up after the event, and then follow up after the event.

The closed circle

The bane of the networking event is the closed circle. A closed circle occurs when people become protective of interruption, and is usually demonstrated in one of two ways.

The Jerk

Mr. Red and Mr. Blue are talking but Mr. Green hasn’t met either of them yet, and approaches. Mr. Green interrupts with an introduction to Mr. Blue, while Mr. Red is speaking. Mr. Red either glares at Mr. Green or gives a fake smile and turns to close the circle, cutting off Mr. Green’s interruption.

The interrupting introduction
The Jerk

Several things could happen here that Mr. Red may be unaware of, because he’s busy talking. Mr. Red has momentarily lost Mr. Blue’s attention. Mr. Blue is likely to make eye contact here with Mr. Green in a mutual bonding over Mr. Red’s rudeness. This may be accompanied by an apologetic look from Mr. Blue or even a “I’ll be with you in one minute” hand motion. Either way, Mr. Red has just lost major points with Mr. Blue and Mr. Green, and has lost Mr. Blue’s attention, totally defeating the purpose of protecting the “important” discussion. Mr. Red has come off looking socially awkward, verging on rudeness.

The Jerks

Although more rare, sometimes when Mr. Green moves in to interrupt with an introduction to Mr. Blue while Mr. Red is speaking, both Mr. Red and Mr. Blue will roll their eyes and both turn to close the circle, cutting off Mr. Green’s interruption.

The interrupting introduction
The Jerks

Here, Mr. Green is likely to just smile, shake his head, and walk away. Sure Mr. Green may feel awkward, but he’s just experienced two socially inept people. It could be argued that Mr. Green is the jerk in both of these instances, if it wasn’t for the fact that this occurred at a networking event.

Circle mentality contributes to the following failures:

  • Rapid speech: The fear of the impending penetration of the circle will cause one to speak rapidly, so as to get everything out before being interrupted.
  • Appearing socially awkward: A lack of social skills will be assumed by those witnessing the circle mentality in others.
  • Appearing selfish: Being defensive about one’s time with someone may appear to be hogging resources and indicate that you’re only at the event to exploit instead of contribute.
  • Loss of connections: Those practicing circle mentality will lose out on establishing connections that may have been mutually beneficial.

The semi-circle

The semi-circle is integral to proper networking. After the greeting and hand shake, people form a semi-circle facing the center of the room. This form is not only an open invitation to be joined by other people, but the form also makes it easy to pull people walking by into the conversation. There is no interruption in the semi-circle mentality, because everyone is invited to join at any time.

Two person semi-circle
Three person semi-circle

The Joiner

When Mr. Green joins Mr. Red and Mr. Blue, he greets Mr. Blue because Mr. Red is speaking. Mr. Red stops speaking, and allows the introduction between Mr. Green and Mr. Blue. Mr. Green then introduces himself to Mr. Red. At the end of the hand shake, Mr. Red says “I was just telling/asking Mr. Blue here, blah”. Mr. Red and Mr. Blue briefly finish their last question and answer.

The Joiner
The Welcome

A three way introduction is now under way. If Mr. Red feels like he didn’t get all of his questions answered from Mr. Blue and doesn’t feel comfortable asking them in front of Mr. Green, he asks for Mr. Blue’s card and connects with him after the event.

Semi-circle mentality contributes to the following successes:

  • Relaxed speech: Since there is no fear of being interrupted, one can speak calmly and confidently.
  • Collaborative speech: Since there are no protective feelings, people can be welcoming to a wider audience.
  • Friendly speech: Since no one is being defensive, there is no rudeness or hurt feelings about not getting all of one’s questions answered.
  • More connections: More connections will be formed, as no introductions are cut off.

After the event

When I attend networking events, I’m looking for people to add to my network. If I can’t answer someone’s question and I don’t know who to call to get an answer, I’ve failed in my networking.

If I fail to answer the phone or return a call when someone in my network calls, I’ve also failed.

If you fail to answer the phone or return my call, or you call to sell me things, you’ve failed.

Networking is about the mutually beneficial sharing of leads and resources. Take advantage of your network, and allow others to take advantage of your being in their network, but don’t exploit the people in your network for your own selfish gain, unless you want to be kicked to the curb.

The ideas in this article may come from my own naive understanding of how a networking event should be, but I hope that they help to establish a standard. Please let me know what you think.

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