Networking tips that really work

Networking goes hand in hand with running a successful business.

But many of us dread walking into a room and introducing ourselves to a bunch of strangers.

I've been asked to share my best networking tips at a meeting today of the National Association of Women Business Owners in Philadelphia. Here are the most valuable tips I've come across – and put to work myself – over the years:

1. Resist the urge to arrive late. It's almost counter-intuitive, but showing up early at a networking event is a much better strategy than getting there on the later side. As a first attendee, you'll notice that it's calmer and quieter – and people won't have settled into groups yet. It's easier to find other people who don't have conversation partners yet.

2. Ask easy questions. Don't wait around the edges of the room, waiting for someone to approach you. To get the conversation started, simply walk up to a person or a group, and say, "May I join you" or "What brings you to this event?" Don't forget to listen intently to their replies. If you're not a natural extrovert, you're probably a very good listener – and listening can be an excellent way to get to know a person.

3. Ditch the sales pitch. Remember, networking is all about relationship building. Keep your exchange fun, light and informal – you don't need to do the hard sell within minutes of meeting a person. The idea is to get the conversation started. People are more apt to do business with – or partner with – people whose company they enjoy.

If a potential customer does ask you about your product or service, be ready with an easy description of your company. Before the event, create a mental list of recent accomplishments, such as a new client you've landed or project you've completed. That way, you can easily pull an item off that list and into the conversation.

4. Share your passion. Win people over with your enthusiasm for your product or service. Leave a lasting impression by telling a story about why you were inspired to create your company. Talking about what you enjoy is often contagious, too. When you get other people to share their passion, it creates a memorable two-way conversation.

5. Smile. It's a simple – but often overlooked – rule of engagement. By smiling, you'll put your nervous self at ease, and you'll also come across as warm and inviting to others. Remember to smile before you enter the room, or before you start your next conversation. And if you're really dreading the event? Check the negative attitude at the door.

6. Don't hijack the conversation. Some people who dislike networking may overcompensate by commandeering the discussion. Don't forget: The most successful networkers (think of those you've met) are good at making other people feel special. Look people in the eye, repeat their name, listen to what they have to say, and suggest topics that are easy to discuss. Be a conversationalist, not a talker.

7. Remember to follow up. It's often said that networking is where the conversation begins, not ends. If you've had a great exchange, ask your conversation partner the best way to stay in touch. Some people like email or phone; others prefer social networks like LinkedIn. Get in touch within 48 hours of the event to show you're interested and available, and reference something you discussed, so your contact remembers you.

Readers, what's your best networking tip?

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