I remember how badly I failed at the first professional conference I attended.
Short on experience, confidence and industry knowledge, my poor day out culminated in spilling a drink on my tie during the end-of-day networking cocktails. I had a few business cards in my pocket, but I didn’t make any meaningful connections, and I certainly had not raised my profile.
Sound familiar? Hopefully not.
Whether you’re a seasoned executive or junior sales, making and maintaining professional connections is a critical skill. In an excellent article on the three types of professional networks, INSEAD Professor of Organizational Behavior, Herminia Ibarra, explains how “contact with peers and with senior executives in your field is vital.”
Strategic networking “helps managers to see the bigger picture and create their own visionary approach,” according to Ibarra’s research.
To make the most of these opportunities, you need to be ready. Here are four keys you should remember to help you sound smart in in a room.
1) Know your role
We each have roles to play and that changes depending on the season, setting and situation. Are you a brand ambassador, there to talk up your company? Are you there as a salesperson, hunting new leads? Are you there as a closer, working key clients? Are you attending as an industry expert, drawing attention to your insight instead of directly to your firm?
Once you figure out what your role is, you know what to focus on and what to let go of. The next step takes this idea of focus further.
2) Bring a shopping list
Once you’ve figured out your role, write out a list of three or four people that if you had a decent conversation with each of them, the whole day would be a success. If you spend all day at a conference and get to speak to these people, anything else is a bonus. Use LinkedIn and Google to find photos of the people for easy identification, and brush up on their bios while you’re at it.
The goal of the list is to address that awkward moment during the coffee break, when you scan the room and have to find someone to go talk to. Look for a person on your shopping list, and go say hi. If they are all busy, hang out. Wait. Pick up free kitsch at an exhibitor’s booth.
3) Ask why
As he often reminds people, Warren Buffett was born with a lot of gifts, but confidence in front of people was not one of them. As a young portfolio manager, Buffett relied on his wife Susie to cover the social graces.
People are usually willing to tell you their story, especially if you show real interest.
According to Buffett’s biographer Alice Schroeder, questions were Susie’s no-fail party trick. “She knew how to get people to open up to her. She would ask about some big life decision, then, with a soulful look, say, ‘Any regrets?’ “ Susie Buffett knew that in a pinch, people are usually willing to tell you their story, especially if you show real interest. Schroeder writes, “People loved her for being so interested in them.”
4) Go with the flow
When all else fails, be open to surprises. Say yes. When someone asks to share your table, to try a product demo, or wants you to tell them about your company … just say yes.
The mistake I used to make at these events was trying to be impressive or to look busy. These days, I have clear goals, but after that I’m always looking for anyone I can have an interesting conversation with.
The first three tips give you focus, but they don’t fill time. When you’ve met your goals, be open to the interesting conversations life brings you. After all, INSEAD’s Ibarra says the ability to manage relationships is key differentiator among leaders.