There’s a lot of advice out there telling you that you should network—that you need to attend every trade show, conference, or industry happy hour you’re invited to, that you should know how to work a room.
But how, exactly, do you do that? Sure, there are also some tips for that, but they’re often presented in vague terms like “taking initiative,” “representing your brand,” and “following up.”
What I find most helpful in upping your networking game, though, is the nitty gritty stuff: The little hacks that make each situation a whole lot easier and a little less awkward. Here are a few things that I’ve found particularly helpful when walking into an event.
1. Learn a Better Handshake
I know you’ve heard it before, but you really must get your handshake right. A great shake is the best way to establish a favorable first impression—and a weak or shy one isn’t going to leave anyone wanting to learn more.
Here are some pro tips: Rather than sliding your hand into the other person’s from the front (and risk getting trapped in a premature squeeze), come in from the side to meet the other person’s hand palm-to-palm. Look your new acquaintance in the eye and give his hand a good, solid squeeze.
I usually like to smile and say something friendly like, “It’s really nice to meet you.” The firmness of your handshake will communicate confidence and authority, while your smile, eye contact, and emotional bid will exude warmth and put the person at ease.
2. Awkwardness: It’s Not You, it’s Them
Unless you roll into an event with a posse, there is always the inevitable uncomfortable moment when you have a to walk up to a group that’s already talking and try to insert yourself into their conversation.
It’s natural to feel apprehensive and worry that your new clique of small talk buddies will shun you, but thanks to this trick from Sara Ittelson, Director of Business Development at Knewton, you no longer have to be nervous. “I used to feel bad about myself if entering into a new conversation got awkward, but then I just changed my mindset,” she says. “I realized that if someone doesn’t have the social graces to include you in the conversation, it means they’re being rude. I’ve learned to see it as a reflection on them, not on myself, so I don’t take it personally.”
3. Forget Business Cards, Hand Them Your Phone
I kind of hate business cards, mostly because I’m never sure where to store them. They end up floating around the deep recesses of my purse for months until they inevitably resurface, wrinkled and covered in crumbs, at which point, even if I can remember where I met the person, it feels way too late to follow up.
And if I meet a great contact at an event, it’s probably someone I’ll want to connect with again soon. Particularly if you’re at a multi-day event like SXSW or TechCrunch Disrupt, you might want to reconnect with your new contact later in the event. In those situations, rather than hand over my business card, I just pull open a blank contact in my address book and hand my phone to the person. Once she’s entered her information (saving me the trouble of adding it myself—score!), I text her with my info, and voilà! We’re connected.
This tactic is also a good way to get to a texting-level relationship quickly, side-stepping the email introduction dance, which can sometimes take days or weeks of follow-up.
4. If You Must Do Cards, Take Notes
It’s not always appropriate to have someone type her contact information into your phone—if she’s much more senior than you are, for example. So, sometimes you’ll have to resort to old school business cards. If you have to collect cards, try to put them all in the same place throughout the event (e.g., your back left pocket or one specific slot in your purse). As soon as you leave the event, write notes about each person and your interaction on the card itself, and include cues about what you talked about that might help you follow up with an email or a Tweet later.
Next time you find yourself working the event circuit, don’t forget these real-world hacks for stepping up your networking game. Do you have your own secret tips for rocking a networking event? Let us know in the comments.