Don't just attend a networking event, own it!

Very early on in my career, I didn't understand the importance of networking events. Job networking seemed like a bunch of people hanging around in suits exchanging business cards, which wasn't my idea of a good time. But that's because I didn't truly know what networking meant.

What is job networking?

Essentially, it's going out and meeting people in your field (or the field you want to break into) that could potentially help you later find or land a job. Besides LinkedIn and connecting with co-workers, networking events are a great way to create professional connections.

Through the years, I've landed clients, and even a job, through my efforts at these professional networking events. I've also connected with vendors that I ended up working with on projects and met other like-minded people who I ended up working with collaboratively to help promote one another. Networking opened doors to opportunities I would have otherwise missed, and these professional events helped.

That's not to say, however, that I didn't stumble along the way. Successfully navigating networking events isn't easy, and knowing how to network effectively may not come naturally. The good news is there are some key things you can do to help you avoid some of the stumbles many professionals struggle with when they first start attending networking events. Use the following networking advice to help you succeed at the next event you attend.

Related: How to Make the Most of Every Professional Networking Event

Dress appropriately

Not sure how to dress for a specific networking event? Keep in mind that not all events require the same type of attire. Read up on the event, whether on a website, a brochure, or elsewhere, and see what you can find about the type of attire expected at the event.

If you can't find the information you're looking for, it's OK to contact the event organizers and ask. Whatever method you use to find this information, make sure you use it.

If it's a formal affair, be sure to show up dressed to impress. If it's more of a business-casual environment, don't go overboard. Whatever the dress code may be, if you don't follow it you'll stand out like a sore thumb. Don't be that person.

Be prepared

Knowing how to prepare for an event can go a long way in being successful. Networking events are typically different than career fairs; it's important to make that distinction. Rather than coming prepared with customized resumes, think business cards instead. One of my favorite professional networking tips is that it's important to be relaxed and act naturally at a networking event, so carrying around a folder full of resumes just doesn't allow for that. If you do come across someone who'd like to see a resume, grab their business card and email it to them the next day.

In addition to business cards, be prepared with a pen. You may need to jot down some additional info on a card you're handed, so bring a pen (or two) so you don't miss out on this opportunity. Think about each of the items you'll need and make sure you have them packed and ready to go the night before.

Be ready to deliver your elevator pitch

One of the most important things you need to have prepared is your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a brief, persuasive pitch that really sells something, and it's key for networking effectively. These are critical for business professionals to have for situations when there's only a short amount of time to impress. Networking events present attendees with many of these types of situations, so be prepared to pitch yourself or your business in two minutes or less.

A solid elevator pitch can pique the right person's interest and convince them that there's a reason to stop and listen longer. Think of yourself as though you were selling a product. How would you sell yourself to the CEO of a major organization if you crossed paths on an elevator, and you only had 10 floors to go until the opportunity was lost? Develop and then practice your pitch. It takes guts to give a good elevator pitch, so be ready.

Related: 5 Tips for Delivering the Perfect Elevator Pitch

Work the room

Networking events are no place for the timid. A great networking tip: Don't linger too long in one area. One mistake I made early on was thinking that I could park myself at a table and the right people would come to me. Wrong! A few stragglers may wander over, but in reality, the table with one random person standing at it is the table most people will avoid.

A little solitude is nice, don't get me wrong, but there's no place for it at a networking event. You need to work the room in order to be successful, so find ways to smoothly enter conversations. Move around the room and don't spend the entire time talking to one person or group. It's OK to politely move on from a conversation because everyone at the event is likely there to talk to more people than just you. Exchange business cards, move on, and send a follow-up networking email.

Don't overindulge

As you work your way around the room, you'll run into a number of tempting food and beverage options. There's no shame in sampling food offerings or sipping on a glass of wine; just make sure you do it in moderation.

Too much food can make you look like a slob or give others the impression that's the only reason you're there in the first place. Plus, if your mouth is always stuffed with food, it's difficult to have a meaningful conversation. Limiting the alcoholic beverages you consume goes without saying. The last thing you want to do is start slurring your speech and rambling on about a night you and your buddies had on spring break 10 years back. Just keep in mind that moderation is the key.

Final networking-event thoughts

How do I know that all these things work, you ask? Easy. All of these, aside from the overindulgence in alcohol, are mistakes I made early on. I got zero value out of the events I attended early on in my career, and so I made a conscious effort to learn from my mistakes and work to improve upon them.

I analyzed my performance at each event, thought about what I did that worked and what I did that didn't work, and then compared my notes to how many solid connections I'd made. Going into each subsequent event, I took what I'd learned from the event before and used it to improve my performance. I like to challenge myself to be better and step outside of my box. The effort I've put into improving my networking skills through the years has been infinitely valuable in helping me advance in my career. This networking advice can help you take that next step as well.

Networking events offer lots of excellent value to professionals at all levels in their career. Take each event seriously, but don't expect to be perfect. Learn from your mistakes, and you'll improve with each event. As they say, practice makes perfect.

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