12 Ways to Make Networking Events Amazing, Not Scary
Networking events like conferences and meetings are the best places to meet clients and colleagues who can help you get more freelance work and better clients. But leaving the safe cocoon of our offices to go to a networking event is stressful for most freelancers—even scary.
Mike Steib finds “chatting up a stranger to be one of the most unnatural and uncomfortable acts in the world.” Steib is CEO of XO Group, an introvert, and author of Don’t Just Network — Build Your ‘Meaningful Network’ to Maximize Your Impact.
Networking at events doesn’t have to be scary. I’m going to show you why networking events matter so much, and give you 12 ways to make going to them easier.
Why Networking Events Matter So Much
I used to have to force myself to go to networking events and to talk to people once I was there. When I got back to the office, I was exhausted!
But I went to conferences and meetings because I knew that who you know—your network—can be more important than anything else in freelance success. Now I’ve learned how to network and have seen how networking has helped me build my freelance business. So I look forward to networking events.
And you can too.
Networking events are especially important for meeting other freelancers. Having a strategic network of freelance friends helps you get more referrals, and get practical advice and support. Referrals are the easiest way to get more freelance work and high-paying clients.
Meeting Freelance Friends at Networking Events
Most of my referrals come from freelance friends who I met at networking events, like Genevieve J. Long, PhD, PC. Genevieve is a freelance medical writer for top-quality patient education and health care marketing content that helps clients stand out.
We met at a conference of a professional association, the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), when we sat next to each other at a session and started chatting. After the conference, we kept in touch.
When I needed to sub-contract work on a large project, I turned to Genevieve. She did a great job, on time, and was easy to work with. Now Genevieve’s my go-to freelance writer when I need to sub-contract.
And Genevieve and I regularly refer clients to each other—because we know and trust each other.
“Our story is a great example of why you should just talk to the people you meet at a conference,” says Genevieve. “You probably have similar interests, and you might make a friend and great colleague, like we did!” Some of the information in this post is from a presentation that Genevieve and I did together at AMWA.
Freelance writers Kristin Harper, PhD, MPH, ELS, and Mia DeFino, MS, ELS, also met at an AMWA annual conference. Kristin, owner of Harper Health & Science Communications, LLC, had been freelancing for a few years when they met. Mia was a new freelance medical and science writer.
Kristin and Mia began to get to know—and trust—each other. Kristin referred clients to Mia, helping her grow her new business. Then Mia helped Kristin focus on setting and achieving goals and told her about new types of freelance work.
Learn more about how professional associations can help you succeed in freelancing.
Nothing Beats In-Person Networking
Meeting people in person at networking events is the best way to begin to build strong, trusting relationships. And it takes trust to get new clients and referrals to new clients.
Conferences, meetings, and other events of professional associations are the best way to network in person. Conferences let you make lots of key contacts in a few days and deepen relationships with current key contacts. And, of course, the conference content helps you stay updated with your industry or field and learn things to better manage your freelance business.
Networking Events Are Not About “Selling Yourself”
If you want to get comfortable with networking, then you need to understand what networking is and isn’t.
Networking is not about “selling yourself.” It’s about getting to know people. I call this my one simple truth about networking for freelancers.
“Your success at building a network is founded on one very important mindset: that you’re doing it based on your desire to know, appreciate, and help other people. This is the only way to build real and lasting relationships,” says Steib. I learned about Steib’s Don’t Just Network — Build Your ‘Meaningful Network’ to Maximize Your Impact from Genevieve.
When you’re at a networking event, remember that:
- Everyone is there to network.
- Many of the people there are also shy or scared.
- Most people are nice.
And networking is a skill. Like any skill, the more you practice, the better—and more comfortable—you’ll get.
Here are 12 ways to make your networking less scary and more useful. They cover what to do before, during, and after networking events.
What to Do Before Networking Events
Networking will be much easier if you get ready before you go. Prepare for a networking event by:
- Developing an awesome elevator speech
- Developing and printing business cards
- Dressing for freelance success
- Scheduling some meetings in advance.
1. Develop Your Elevator Speech and Business Cards
Take your elevator speech and plenty of business cards with you to the networking event.
Your elevator speech
Your elevator speech is what you’ll say so that people understand—in 30 seconds or less—what you do and how you help your clients. Include:
- The benefit clients get when they work with you
- What you do (your services)
- Who you work with (type of clients).
Before you head out the door, think about your elevator speech. Also practice it, because saying it won’t feel natural.
Get more tips and see examples of freelancers’ elevator speeches.
Your business card
Your business card is a small but powerful ad for your freelance business. It’s an easy way for the people you meet to remember you. So make sure your cards are clear, high-quality, and error-free.
Also ask people for their cards. Make notes on the back of their cards so you remember what you talked about. Use this to follow up after the event (#12).
2. Dress for Freelance Success
How you dress for networking matters—a lot. People form opinions about you within a few seconds, and that opinion is based on your appearance.
Many freelancers miss out on making that all-important positive first impression by not dressing for success.
And when you look good, you boost your self-esteem. If you have more self-esteem, networking will be easier.
Business casual works for most networking events, unless your clients and industry require more professional dress.
Learn more about how what you wear affects you and the people you meet.
3. Schedule Some Meetings
Accelerate your networking at events and use your time wisely by scheduling some meetings with people you already know and people you want to meet. Meet with people during breaks and for meals or drinks. You can also arrange to sit with someone at a session you’re both interested in.
For new people, meeting at breaks or sitting together at a session is easier because you won’t have to talk too much. For people you already know, meals or drinks give you a chance to catch up and deepen your relationship.
Meetings are a great way to connect in person with people you’ve met through LinkedIn or other social media but haven’t spent time with in person.
Look for new people to meet with by getting an attendee list before the networking event (if it’s available) and searching for possible good contacts. If one of your professional associations is hosting the networking event, search the membership directory. Then email each person you’d like to meet to suggest getting together.
The worse that can happen is someone says no or that he/she isn’t attending the event. But don’t overschedule yourself.
What to Do During Networking Events
Being prepared helps you go to a networking event with a positive attitude and an approachable manner. Other people will want to talk to you, and you’ll be able to make them (and yourself) comfortable during the conversation. You’ll know how to start and end a conversation.
Focusing your conversations on helping others without expecting anything in return will also help you be more comfortable. Giving more than you take is also the best way to build trusting relationships with freelance friends, other colleagues, and prospective clients.
Be strategic during networking events. And be reasonable about what you expect to get out of being there. The real results of networking come from building relationships with people after the event ends (see #11 and #12).
Take breaks when you need to. Being around other people all day can be exhausting for freelancers who are used to working alone.
4. Be Approachable
Smile. This will relax you and make it easier for other people to talk to you. Psychologists say that when you smile, people see you as reliable, relaxed, and sincere.
“You create people’s impressions of you. Look at people and give them a smile. If you seem like a happy, approachable person, you make it easier for them to come up to you,” says Selena Soo in The Ultimate Guide to Meeting People at Events.
How you look and sound matters much more than what you say when you’re meeting people. According to research by Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, how much someone likes you depends on:
- Appearance and body language: About 55%
- Tone, volume, and cadence of voice: About 38%
- What you say: Just 7%.
Steib offers tips about how to appear warm and friendly when you meet people. And don’t bury your face in your phone, tablet, or computer during breaks.
5. Talk to People
Most people will be happy if you talk to them. Many, especially other freelancers, are shy and nervous about starting a conversation. So be brave, and do this yourself. Talk to people who you meet in line and people you sit next to at a presentation, session, or meal.
Before you go, prepare some opening lines. Opening lines are what you’ll say when you first meet someone. An open-ended question makes a great opening line. Here are a few ideas:
- Why did you decide to come to this conference?
- What sessions are you attending?
- How did you come to be a [WHATEVER THE PERSON DOES]?
- What do you like best about your work?
You can also start a conversation by mentioning something about the person or simply saying hi:
- Wow, I love your [NECKLACE, TIE, ETC].
- Hi. I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Lori.
Ask about the other person and focus on him/her. This makes networking much easier.
6. Know How to End a Conversation
Ending a conversation is harder than starting one. We feel bad about wanting to move on, or we’re comfortable talking to the person and don’t want to have to find someone new to talk to.
But networking is about meeting new people. Doing what’s comfortable won’t help you build your network.
Here are some nice ways to move on:
- It’s been so nice talking to you! Do you have a card?
- I don’t want to keep you from everyone else, but let’s connect. Here’s my card.
- I need to run to my session. Take care!
Streib suggests simply saying something like: “I’m so glad to meet you, Joe. I hope to see you again soon.”
7. Give More than You Take
People who give more than they take are more successful than people who put themselves first.
In his best-selling book Give and Take, Wharton professor Adam Grant reported that people who give their time, knowledge, ideas, and connections to others without expecting anything in return (“givers”) are more successful than people who think it’s a dog-eat-dog world and focus only on self-promotion (“takers”).
Helping others without expecting anything in return—or giving more than you take—is the best way to build trusting relationships with freelance friends, other colleagues, and prospective clients.
The people you help will remember you when they have a freelance job or something else to share. It’s also easier to ask someone for help if you’ve helped her or him.
And giving makes networking events easier. Instead of worrying about selling your services (which is NOT the purpose of networking), you focus on getting to know people by listening to them.
Ask about their work and their interests. Then share useful information and content and connect them to people who may be useful to them, during and after the event.
Not only does this make networking easier, but it also works better than trying to sell your services. By giving, we build trust and establish our credibility. The result, over time, is more referrals to more freelance work.
Learn more about how to give more than you take.
8. Be Strategic
Be nice to everyone you meet, but spend most of your networking time with the people you think will be most useful to you, and you to them, especially other freelancers. Don’t spend too much time with one person at a networking event.
Being strategic also means scheduling some meetings in advance (#3) and following up with key contacts after the event (#12).
9. Have Reasonable Expectations
Don’t expect to leave a networking event with new clients and dozens of deep relationships. And don’t worry if you don’t get to know a lot of people. The quality of the people you meet (in terms of their relevance to you) is much more important than the quantity.
“You don’t want to get stuck talking to just one person during the entire event, but you also shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to connect with all 100+ people who may be attending. Instead, set an achievable goal,” says Soo.
She suggests meeting and having meaningful conversations with 2-3 people at an event. At a multi-day conference, you’ll be able to connect with many more people, but still focus on quality over quantity.
10. Take Breaks During Networking Events
As freelancers, we’re used to working alone. Take breaks when you need to. And don’t overschedule yourself.
Even though I love networking now, being around other people all day at networking events can be exhausting.
I like to go outside for a few minutes during some of the breaks. And I have a few meals on my own away from the hotel or conference center. Each day, I also find a time to work out.
What to Do After Networking Events
The end of the networking event is only the first step in building the trusting relationships that lead to getting high-paying freelance work and referrals to clients. But before you start doing this, reward yourself for putting yourself out there and networking.
11. Give Yourself a Treat
When the networking event’s over or at the end of each day of a multi-day conference, reward yourself for being brave. Here are a few ideas:
- Go for a walk if you’ve been indoors all day
- Have a glass of wine
- Enjoy a meal at a great restaurant.
Whatever it is—do something you enjoy. You deserve it!
12. Follow Up Soon After Networking Events
A networking event is where you meet new people and deepen relationships with people you already know. While seeing people in person accelerates relationship-building, it’s not enough to lead to referrals or have other benefits.
So you need to follow up and stay in touch regularly with the people you’re meeting. That’s where the real results of networking will come from.
“This is where so many entrepreneurs drop the ball. They get home from an event, exhausted, and then wait a week or two before following up… and then they feel like it’s too late,” says Soo.
Follow up soon after the event with people you think could be helpful to you (and you to them). Do this by:
- Inviting the person to join your LinkedIn network and/or
- Sending an email to say “nice to meet you.”
See Tip 22 in Soo’s networking guide for ways to follow up and a template for email follow up.
Stay in touch regularly with your new contacts and key contacts you already know so that:
- Clients think of you first when they need a freelancer
- Colleagues think of you first when they have freelance work to share.
Be polite and professional, and focus mostly on providing your contacts with useful information and resources. Once or twice year, mention your freelance services.
Learn More About Networking and Networking Events for Freelancers
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Mike Steib, First Round Review, Don’t Just Network — Build Your ‘Meaningful Network’ to Maximize Your Impact
Selena Soo, The Ultimate Guide to Meeting People at Events