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Five ways to make a strong first impression at a networking event

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
Five keys to networking success – essential tips for university graduates searching for a job.

Why should you network in the first place?

The value of personal connections when building your career (or seeking out other opportunities) has for many years been captured in sayings like ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know.’ More recently, research has confirmed the importance to one’s career progression of making personal connections: by some estimates, up to 60 per cent of jobs are never advertised, belonging instead to what recruitment experts call the ‘hidden job’ market.

Such hidden jobs are usually filled by candidates who catch the attention of recruiters through personal referrals or by making a strong impression at a networking event. This gives them an enormous advantage beyond being considered for an unlisted position: according to one survey, referred applicants are five times more likely than average to be hired, and 15 times more likely to be hired than applicants from a job board.

In other words, developing connections through professional networking can give your career an enormous boost. And that’s not all—networking also allows you to:

  • Meet people with similar interests, providing the foundation for lifelong friendships or (if, say, you’re mingling at a Silicon Valley luncheon) the launch of a new business.
  • Help potential future collaborators or employers put a face to your name.
  • Hone the interpersonal and communication skills that modern employers find invaluable in job candidates.
  • Ask questions of potential colleagues and employers, and get a feel for the type of people you may be working alongside in a new role.
  • Boost your confidence, especially if you’re new to professional networking events (of which there will likely be many over the course of your career).

The challenge of networking

Given the obvious benefits of networking, it’s dispiriting to note that many people struggle to network effectively. However, in their defence, unless you’re born with an enormous dose of charisma and natural savoir-faire, networking isn’t easy. It requires you (at least, initially) to get outside of your comfort zone, interact with strangers, and manage the pressure of knowing that first impressions really are lasting (which means that a bad one can be as life-changing as a good one, albeit in a much less welcome way).

So, if you’re uncertain about your own networking skills, or preparing for your first graduate networking event, then this article is for you. We’ve brought together five must-know tips that will help you stand out from the crowd and network like a seasoned pro.

A quick note about terminology: what do we mean by ‘networking’?

In the context of this article, we’ll use ‘networking’ to refer specifically to face-to-face interactions, in a professional or semi-professional setting (for example, a workplace or careers fair), that aim to establish relationships with people who will become your friends, employers, or colleagues. The advice below does not apply to digital networking (such as that which takes place on websites like LinkedIn) or to ordinary socialising (in which case you are strongly advised to leave your business cards at home).

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The five keys to networking success

1. Learn as much as you can about the event beforehand

Does this seem obvious? It should be obvious. Nevertheless, many people attend networking events without having conducted basic research about the hosts or the other (probable) guests. In doing so, they deprive themselves of an opportunity to get the most out of their networking experience.

You needn’t make the same mistake: instead, commit to learning as much as you can about a networking event before attending it. For example, if you’re planning to network at a careers fair, consider the following:

  • Who is hosting the event? For example, if you’re attending the annual AECOM Woman’s Path Forward networking event, it could be helpful to learn a little about what AECOM does, and how it has promoted gender diversity in the past.
  • Will there be speakers at the event? Often, networking functions feature a guest speaker who addresses a topic of importance to participants. Researching who the speaker is can prepare you to ask any questions you might have or, better yet, give you something to share with other attendees (e.g. ‘Apparently he’s written a book about recruitment. Have you read it?’)
  • Know the dress code. This one is self-explanatory: don’t be the only person in a suit, and don’t be the only person not in a suit.
  • Who else will be there? Make a list of the people you’d like to meet. If, say, the networking event takes place in conjunction with a careers fair, you might write down the employers that interest you most and make a point of seeking them out. You can even reach out to individual attendees (if the information is publicly available) to introduce yourself and let them know that you’re attending the same event and interested in meeting them.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do before turning up to the networking event is to identify what your goals are. Are you hoping to make friends? Impress prospective employers? Meet specific people? Ask important questions? Arrive with a clear idea of what you’d like to achieve—this will help you to focus on the important stuff, which, in turn, can give you a confidence-boosting sense of purpose.

2. Strike a balance between expanding your network and consolidating it

The people you meet at a networking event will fall into two categories: those you’ve met before and those whom you’re meeting for the first time. Ideally, you should strike a balance between the two, using the event as an opportunity to reconnect with familiar faces (especially if there are people you recognise but haven’t yet gotten to know very well), while also seeking out brand new connections.

If anything, your emphasis should be on the latter: reconnect briefly and, if appropriate (or desirable), share details that will allow you to catch up in the future. Then focus on expanding your social and professional circles, which is, ultimately, the purpose of a networking event.

What you generally don’t want to do is spend the event exclusively in the company of people that you know well already: there’s a good chance that you’ll miss an opportunity to make a valuable new connection, something that it’s much easier to do at a dedicated event than in the workplace.

3. Introduce yourself with confidence

Confidence is the sum of preparation and practice: by giving some thought to how you’ll approach conversations at a networking event, you’ll build (or bolster) the secure belief that you can rely on yourself, even if, at first, the thought of greeting strangers gives you butterflies in your stomach. Understand that everybody experiences self-doubt from time to time, even beacons of self-esteem who appear to treat networking events like social all-you-can-eat buffets.

To help you push through it, let’s focus on your introduction—if you can get past that, then you may discover that you’re participating in a conversation just like any other. Here are five tips to help you build an opener that leads to a fruitful and enjoyable interaction:

  • Keep it simple. Many articles on networking introductions will encourage you to approach people with a well-rehearsed spiel that includes your name, your passions, your job title, and an ‘invitation’ in the form of a suggested topic (i.e. you could volunteer, apropos of nothing, the most important lesson you’ve learned as a graduate). While these are all interesting things to discuss, and may indeed come up during a conversation, it’s important to remember that other attendees might be nervous or feeling out of place. Greeting them with a fluent paragraph about your professional and academic heritage will not put them at ease (in fact, it could make you seem intimidating or crazy). Instead, stick to the basics:
    • Introduce yourself by name, ‘Hi, I’m Michelle’.
    • Allow the other person to introduce themselves, ‘Tim, pleasure to meet you’.
    • Shake hands and use a polite phrase like, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you (too)’.
    • The hardest part is now over! Move on to the next point.
  • To build a connection fast, focus on a shared experience. What is the most obvious thing that you and the other person have in common? To begin with, you’re at the same networking event, so some possible follow ups might include:
    • ‘What did you think of the presentation earlier?’
    • ‘How did you find out about this networking night?’
    • ‘I wonder if these events are usually so crowded. I think every engineer in Australia might be here.’

Many people will default to a variation on the time-tested question, ‘What do you do?’. This isn’t necessarily a bad opener, but in many cases (i.e. at an accountant’s networking event) the answer could be a bit obvious. The question may also embarrass career-changers or graduates who are re-entering the job market after a period of travel or unemployment. Consider trying a less direct alternative, such as, ‘How do you fill your time?’ But be prepared to hear, in response, ‘With networking events.’

  • Be specific. If you’re asked what it is that you do, give the other speaker something to work with. Avoid undetailed answers like ‘I’m an accountant’ or ‘I just studied civil engineering.’ Instead, without labouring too much over the details, share two or three facts about yourself. For example, ‘I graduated from an accounting degree at the University of New South Wales last year and now I’m working in the property division at CBA.’ Or, if you’re still a student, you could say something like ‘I’m currently studying chemistry at the University of Queensland, and I’m hoping to move into a research position next year.’

If you don’t have an obvious answer—you may be a jobseeker yourself, or planning to study in the future—adapt your answer accordingly. For example, you might say: ‘I’m focused on mental health, and, in the future, I’d really like to make a difference by working with disadvantaged populations.’  

  • Build a rapport by discussing a topic of interest. Let’s say that the person you’re speaking with is studying chemistry. What do they most like about it? Have they learned anything really interesting lately? If they had to perform an experiment at a children’s party, which would it be, and how much dry ice would it require? The trick here is to get people talking about something they’re passionate about.

Alternatively, you could lead the way: be prepared to share an interesting anecdote about your own experiences. Don’t just be a lawyer: be a lawyer who is ready to discuss a pressing legal issue or a surprising aspect of life in a firm or something similar. Remember: the best conversations don’t involve only an exchange of facts, but also an exchange of excitement and enthusiasm.

  • You don’t need to ‘sell’ yourself. Networking events aren’t competitions in which you have to impress everybody you meet. The erroneous belief that it’s necessary to do so will only result in undue pressure and, more often than not, a wooden performance when making introductions. A more sensible goal is to focus on learning more about the other person to see if you have common interests and goals, and whether or not there might be ways you can help each other.
  • Relax. Meeting new people can be hard. You deserve to give yourself credit for being bold enough to strike up a conversation with somebody you haven’t met before. Once you’ve done so, it’s easier if you go with the flow and, by being at ease yourself, help the other person feel at ease as well. In the next section, we’ll cover how to end a conversation politely—it’s always an option and knowing how to do so will help you to manage interactions that don’t go to plan. Onwards!

4. Brush up on your conversational skills

So, you’ve introduced yourself… what now? If you’re unsure or uneasy when making conversation with new connections, these tips are for you:

  • Remember that the aim of a conversation is to foster communication. In other words, what you say (the conversation) should lead to establishment of a dialogue in which both (or all) parties have a chance to make meaningful contributions and learn from each other (communication). To this end:
  • Avoid the overuse of close-ended questions. These include true-false/yes-no question (e.g. ‘are you an accountant?’) and questions that require only a one- or two-word reply (e.g. ‘Where did you study?’). Such questions are useful for establishing specific facts but, when employed injudiciously, deprive other parties of a chance to talk at length, cause them to feel interrogated, and lead to dull, prematurely terminated conversations. The key words of close-ended questions are ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’’, ‘where’, and ‘are’.
  • Prioritize open-ended questions. These questions ask for explanations and elaborations, while demonstrating your interest in what other people have to say. For example, you could ask ‘What motivated you to major in chemistry?’ or ‘What sort of work do you do in that department?’. The key words of open-ended questions are ‘how’, ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘in which way’.
  • Listen actively. This means that you should make eye contact with your conversational partner and give them your full attention. Try not to become distracted by thoughts of what you will say next: you might miss something interesting or important! Active listening involves demonstrating your engagement by asking open-ended questions.
  • Stay positive. Aim to create an interaction that leaves both (or all) parties feeling better than they did when it started. This doesn’t mean that you have to be witty or impressive or showy: only that you focus on the silver lining and avoid criticism of yourself, the other person, or the event. Be prepared to congratulate the other speaker on their accomplishments or even just offer encouragement when they’re talking by using phrases like ‘You don’t say!’ or ‘Wow, I never knew that before.’
  • End conversations politely. To do so, simply reverse your introduction. Wait for an appropriate lull in the conversation, then issue a polite exit line, such as:

‘It’s been really great meeting you, but I want to ask the speaker/a colleague some questions before he/she leaves.’

‘Well, I want to make sure to say hello to at least three people tonight!’

‘Anyway, I don’t want to take up all of your time.’

You can then thank your conversational partner in a specific way: ‘Thanks for sharing your experiences as a graduate engineer. You’ve helped me answer some important questions’ or ‘I appreciate your telling me more about life within a law firm.’ Then shake hands, and, with conviction, depart to do the thing you said you were going to do.  

5. Remember to follow up on new connections in a consistent way

At the end of a mutually satisfying conversation, you may decide to swap details with the other party. Ideally, you should aim to be the type of person who collects details instead of giving them away, which gives you the option of following up later. However, with that option comes a responsibility: it’s on you to make sure that you do reconnect with people you’d like to stay in touch with. To make this easier, it’s a good idea to adopt a consistent approach.

For example, you could reach out to people on an appropriate social media platform (i.e. LinkedIn) or send a short message to their email address. Be sure to thank them for their time, reiterate that you enjoyed meeting them, and keep the conversation going by asking any outstanding questions, suggesting a time to meet up, or sharing anything your promised to deliver (for example, an interesting article you mentioned during your conversation).

Alternatively, if you want to consolidate the connection without taking things further immediately, you can keep your message short and sweet: ‘Hi Jane, It was great meeting you at the graduate networking event on Sunday. Best of luck with the next stage of your CPA!’

Practice makes perfect

Networking events really are an invaluable tool for getting to know your colleagues better, creating new connections, learning from your peers, and making a favourable impression on potential employers. We hope that the advice above helps you to approaching networking with confidence and success. Now it’s up to you to put your skills into practice.