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How to work a room at an important networking event

July 26, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC
Axonify CEO Carol Leaman
Courtesy of Axonify

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What’s the best way to network? is written by Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify.

In the long list of all of the things we have to do to be successful in our careers, networking is one of those activities that can evoke feelings of reluctance, awkwardness, embarrassment and the general sentiment of “Ugh, do I really have to do this?”

Figuring out how to walk into a room full of strangers and have a meaningful, natural, productive conversation can be challenging. All too often, we shrink back to the comfort of furtively searching the room for familiar faces and gravitating to the friendlies we recognize. Before we know it, an hour or two has elapsed, and we’ve accomplished nothing more than showing up and shooting the breeze.

While I’m a people person at heart, networking will never be something I look forward to. But I also understand that it’s a necessary and important part of the job, so I developed five tips to help you make the most of every opportunity:

1. Pick your events carefully
I could easily attend an event 10 nights out of every month if I wanted to — from CEO dinners to local tech events, investor cocktail parties and monthly startup volleyball, among others. I used to attend everything I could until it dawned on me that half of the events weren’t meeting personal needs (e.g. to have fun) or furthering my business, and I was seeing many of the same people over and over again.

I’m much more discerning and strategic now about how I spend my time and who I spend it with. Consciously think about what the event is going to get you and whether or not it’s worth it for you to be there.

2. Plan ahead
Is it an event or activity geared to making connections with potential customers, investors or someone else relevant to your business? If so, do your homework first. Try to find out who’s going to be there. Reach out ahead of time and see if you can lay a soft foundation for meeting one to three new people. Making a connection in advance completely eliminates the awkwardness of starting from ground zero when you get there. I’ll bet it helps the other person, too.

3. Set a goal
Here are a few potential goals to think about achieving: Meet a minimum number of new people; practice your sales elevator pitch two times; practice an opening greeting or two to see what works; and be on the receiving end of someone else’s pitch. Figuring out even one meaningful takeaway will make your goals worth the time. Give yourself a networking challenge like talking to three people who are wearing blue at an event.

4. Show up early and look your best
It’s much easier to engage with someone new when there aren’t many people in the room. And once you’ve had one conversation, it’s easier to move onto the next. Dress for success. People like to speak to other people who look confident and put together.

5. Don’t be a cling-on
We all know the type, and we’ve all been there. After working up the courage to speak to someone who looks equally uncomfortable, it isn’t wise to cling to each other for the rest of the night. Force yourself to move on. In fact, if you start a conversation that quickly seems like it won’t prove to be of value, end it politely with, “It’s been lovely talking to you, but I don’t want to monopolize your evening.” Then catch the eye of another person. In fact, catching the eye of anyone within spitting distance gives you the immediate opening to say, “Hi, there. Have we met before?” Don’t let that opportunity slip away.

The trick to networking is doing it with purpose. Have a plan, and even if you don’t come away with a new prospective customer or investor, you hopefully would have left a lasting and positive impression that pays dividends down the road.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What’s the best way to network?

The one question you have to ask everyone you network with by Clark Valberg, CEO of InVision.

3 signs you’re a serial meet-and-greet networker by Shadan Deleveaux, director of sales multicultural beauty division at L’Oréal USA.

Forget what you know about networking. Do this insteadby Jim Yu, CEO of BrightEdge.

3 networking mistakes you don’t know you’re making by Dan Finnigan, CEO of Jobvite.

Why face-to-face networking will never go out of style by Kevin Chou, co-founder and CEO of Kabam.

How to effectively network (even if you dread it) by David DeWolf, president and CEO of 3Pillar Global.

The only thing you need to keep in mind when networking by William Craig, founder and president of WebpageFX.

Why social media alone won’t get you a job by Gary Vaynerchuk, co-founder and CEO of VaynerMedia.

NYSE President: I owe every job I’ve ever had to networking by Tom Farley, president of the NYSE.