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Schmoozing With Substance

“Schmoozing With Substance”

Take the art of mingling to a higher level.

Attend any conference and watch how master networkers operate. They raise mingling to an art form, weaving in and out of conversations with ease. They seem genuine, curious and enthusiastic. They ask great questions, listen and learn.

Successful entrepreneurs take networking to another level. They expand their contacts to achieve specific goals, from attracting new customers and partners to identifying potential vendors and suppliers. In short, they treat networking as a profit-making activity.

To capitalize on networking, develop a strategy that maximizes every minute. That involves identifying your goal, knowing in advance whom you want to meet and rehearsing an icebreaker.

Know your goal

Before any networking opportunity, ask yourself, "How will I judge to what extent this event is a success?" This helps you pinpoint what you want to achieve as a result of your mingling.

If your goal is to "meet people" or "make the rounds," that’s too vague. Narrow down your objective. Just shaking lots of hands and drifting from person to person can prove a time-wasting and frustrating experience.

Arm yourself with a specific goal that lends clarity and purpose to your efforts. It should capture exactly why you want to forge new contacts and what’s to gain. Concrete goals include:

  • Generate sales leads.
  • Attract investors.
  • Gain press coverage.
  • Collect referrals for professional services (attorneys, accountants).
  • Enlist local political allies.
  • Recruit employees.

By defining your objective, you can take more effective steps toward achieving it. For example, if you’re planning to attend a chamber of commerce mixer and your goal is to find potential partners for a joint venture, think about precisely what type of business you seek. That will guide your efforts from the moment you enter the room.

A few more pointers to refine your goal:

Make it measurable. Decide how many people you want to meet. Examples: I want to introduce five journalists to my business; I want to obtain three referrals to attorneys who handle SBA loans. By setting an ambitious number from the get-go, you’ll make that one extra push, rather than leave as soon as your energy starts to wane.

Frame it positively. Create a goal that frees you to act naturally. If you’re preoccupied with keeping a secret ("I don’t want to mention our pending deal") or avoiding certain people ("I only want to meet CEOs, not underlings"), you may come across as tense, arrogant or overly guarded.

Recognize why it matters. Dig deep to determine the significance of your goal. Networking becomes easier if you realize what’s at stake and understand your underlying mission.

Target your contacts

Adopt a proactive approach to networking. Learn in advance who’ll attend the event and identify whom you want to meet.

In the days before a networking function, call the host and ask:

  • Do you have a list of those planning to attend?
  • Do you have lists of attendees at past events of this kind?
  • How many people have signed up? Do you have any information on their job titles, employers, industries, etc.?
  • Have any special guests confirmed they’ll attend, such as panelists, journalists or visiting dignitaries?
  • How have you publicized the event?
  • Will any individuals be honored or recognized at the event? If so, for what?

The more you learn about who’s expected to attend and why, the easier your preparation. By knowing that a local politician will show up to receive an award, for instance, you can use the opportunity to make a quick introduction, befriend the official’s aides and request a meeting to discuss your business expansion.

Another benefit: You can prepare to greet people you’ve met before. Examples:

Recall past conversations so that you can approach acquaintances with friendly follow-up questions, such as "How’s that new office coming along?"

Bring clippings. Mention positive articles you’ve read about individuals and their companies. Give them copies of the articles.

Review commitments you’ve made and fulfill them. By knowing in advance whom you might run into when networking, you won’t be caught off guard. If you’ve made promises to certain people (such as offering to send them information or put someone in touch with them), follow through before it’s too late.

Above all, don’t equate networking with clinging. If you dread circulating in a roomful of strangers, you might chat with the same person as long as you can. That’s safe, comfortable — and wasteful. You’ll squander chances to network if you remain with the same person.

Rehearse your opening gambit

At its best, networking enables you to meet influential people in a relaxed setting. But you still need to prepare something intelligent to say to create a positive first impression.

Ideally, break the ice by showing that you’re familiar with other companies. After exchanging introductions, find something to praise about the other person’s firm. Examples:

  • I read that your company is growing incredibly fast.
  • Your new facility looks great. I drive by it often, and I’ve monitored its progress.
  • Your products are displayed prominently in my supermarket.

Comments like these put others at ease. Better yet, they advance the conversation positively by promoting goodwill.

Keep your business cards in an accessible coat pocket. That way, you won’t sever eye contact with others or fumble.

Don’t wait for the other person to ask for your card. Offer it automatically as you state your name and company. This enables others to both hear and read your name and company, which will reinforce the information in their mind. Two other advantages of volunteering your card at the beginning of the conversation:

  1. You increase the odds the other person will return the favor and give you their card. And that’s an easy way for you to learn whom you’re talking to, their office location and any professional designations they’ve earned. What’s more, if you have trouble hearing the person’s name, you can check their card to confirm it.
  2. Even if the encounter ends abruptly, at least the other person will know how to reach you if they have your card.

In the first minute after you meet someone, don’t be negative. Avoid expressing critical opinions. If the other person lambastes the bad food or third-rate guest speaker, listen and ask questions. It’s unwise to give your own harsh assessments too soon because you might go too far and alienate others.

Use time wisely

Squeeze the most productivity from your networking by watching the clock. Keep circulating. If you plant yourself in a corner and spend an hour chatting with a few friends, you may miss opportunities to land new business.

Never spend too much time locked in one conversation. Use networking events to strike up initial rapport with as many influential people as possible, exchange business cards and perhaps set a time to talk further.

The more people at the function, the less time you should devote to each conversation. Small, intimate gatherings give you the luxury of lingering a bit longer with one individual before continuing to mingle.

When surrounded by a sea of strangers, hit all four quadrants of the room. Approach clusters of three or four people who don’t seem embroiled in intense conversation. Weave your way into their chat and introduce yourself.

Like prospecting for clients, networking is a numbers game. Invest about three minutes in each encounter, and you can establish 20 contacts an hour. Stick around for six minut
es each time, and you can only forge 10 contacts an hour. Spending 50% of the time with people you already know will cut your outreach in half.

If you expect many VIPs to attend a networking function, arrive early and plan to stay late. Some bigwigs will pop in for only a short time. If you know what they look like and you stay alert and watchful, you can nab them during this limited window.

One of the best ways to gain access to elusive dignitaries is to time your exit so that it matches theirs. A two-minute elevator ride can provide a quiet setting for an introductory chat. If you’re both waiting for a valet to bring your cars — or you both need to hail a cab — you can talk while you wait.

Suggest ways to stay in touch

After investing in an enjoyable or informative conversation, don’t just shake hands, say "Great to meet you" and then part company. That almost guarantees you’ve wasted your time.

Find a reason to stay in touch. This creates a stepping-stone for the relationship to advance. Some specific strategies include:

Offer to help. Uncover ways in which you can fill others’ needs. Listen for phrases such as "That’s something I need to look into" or "I’ve been meaning to find out more about that." Pounce on these opportunities. Promise to pass along a referral of a reliable supplier or send a copy of an article that the person might find useful.

Follow up within 48 hours. If you send something via snail mail, such as a book or newsletter, enclose a handwritten note. If you send e-mail, include a link to your company’s Web site.

Issue an invitation. Suggest a tour of your production facility or showroom. Or ask the person to serve as a guest speaker at one of your upcoming staff meetings. If you belong to any groups that the person may find helpful, invite him or her to join you at the next meeting.

Research an inquiry. A great benefit of networking is the information exchange that occurs. But as others ask you questions — about your company, an industry benchmarking survey or the status of a regulation that affects your businesses — you may lack instant answers. Rather than shrug and say, "I don’t know," promise to investigate. Say, "That’s a good question, and you’ve motivated me to find out." Jot a note to show you intend to follow up, and then ask the best way to get in touch.

Set a phone appointment. It’s often tough to communicate in a loud, crowded room. Explain that you want to talk longer, but in a more comfortable setting. Mention your purpose — whether it’s to pick their brain or explore joint projects — and ask, "When is a convenient day and time for me to call you?"

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995). E-mail: stettner@attbi.com