In high school, there are college fairs and open houses. At a college or university, there are student association meetings and mixers. In the professional world, networking takes on a whole new level of importance.

In order to get results that help drive your career forward, you have to do more than show up to professional networking events. You have to stand out from the crowd. Follow this basic roadmap to help make your next networking event more productive.

  1. KNOW THE EVENT

    Gathering information about the event will allow you to set clear goals, identify people you might meet, and prepare for conversations you might have. Ask the following questions for any networking event you plan to attend:

    • What is the theme of the event?
    • Who are the sponsors?
    • Who is the target audience?
    • Who are the speakers and presenters?
    • What panels, sessions, or workshops are relevant to your career goals?
       
  2. DEFINE YOUR PERSONAL BRAND

    For networking purposes, you might find it useful to think of yourself as a “brand” with a target audience. The point is to develop a clear idea of who you are professionally, including how you want to be seen, what you can offer, and what you want to achieve. Are you looking for job connections? A professional mentor? New perspectives on your industry?

    Don’t just think about what you can get out of a networking event; think about what you can offer other people in your industry. The more you reflect on your own professional image and target audience, the bigger your advantage over anyone who shows up unprepared.
     

  3. DEVELOP A GAME PLAN

    Take a closer look at the event program, the speakers, and the various panels or “breakout” sessions. Find people and topics that are aligned to your professional goals. Look at a floor plan to get a feel for the venue, and create a schedule for yourself.

    Any successful networker will tell you that good results don’t come automatically, and that planning ahead makes all the difference.
     

  4. PACK YOUR STUFF

    The most important thing you can bring to your next networking event is a head full of information about the people and organizations involved. That said, it also pays to have the right materials on hand. Here is an example of a packing list for a networking event:

    • 10 copies of your resume and cover letter
    • A stack of business cards
    • A notebook and pen for taking down information
    • A portfolio of your professional work
       
  5. DRESS WITH CONFIDENCE

    Do wear clothing that makes you feel confident and professional. Don’t dress too casually unless you’ve got a convincing reason to do so. Your wardrobe choices are an important part of your professional image and should demonstrate your commitment to excellence.

    When in doubt, “business casual” is a reliable guidepost for most networking events. Putting a little extra care into your appearance on the day of the event will help you feel poised and ready to engage.
     

  6. BE PRESENT

    At crunch time, the number one rule is to be present and to actively engage. Here are some ways to do that:

    • Get out of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to people.
    • Maintain good eye contact during every interaction.
    • Be friendly and approachable – not too serious, but not too casual either.
    • Ask relevant, thought-provoking questions that get people to engage with you.
    • Offer your perspective on industry topics or news.
    • Actively participate in panel discussions and breakout sessions.
    • Avoid smartphones – focus on the people at the event.

    During your preparations for the event, you’ve learned about specific people, companies, and industry developments. Now is the time to seek out dynamic conversations that could open a path to a new connection.
     

  7. FOLLOW UP

    You might have dozens of productive conversations at a networking event, and you might exchange contact information with hundreds of people. In order to make something out of these connections, you have to master the art of the follow-up.

    • Send a carefully crafted e-mail or handwritten note within 24 hours of the event so that your face is still fresh in people’s minds.
    • Include a specific reference to the conversation you had with that person. For example, “I really enjoyed your insights about leadership in human resources.” You can also say something more general related to the work they do, such as “I’d really like to hear more about what you’ve done with management software for health care organizations.”
    • Signal your willingness to provide help or support. This could be as simple as offering to connect the person to someone else or forwarding an article you discussed.
    • Suggest a time to meet in person and continue the conversation over coffee.
    • Get on LinkedIn and request a connection, but don’t ask for a recommendation until you get to know the person a little better.
       
NETWORKING IS A LIFELONG SKILL

Whatever your career path, networking is one of the most important skills you can develop. It makes you visible as a professional and creates countless opportunities that would otherwise remain hidden.

Making yourself available as a support to others in your field will inspire them to do the same for you; this is how you create a meaningful web of professional connections. Adhering to the road-tested principles discussed here will help you tap into the most important professional resource there is: people.

Learn more about Strayer University’s online degree programs for busy working professionals.

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