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Ok, this post is actually an offshoot of networking. After all that mingling, sometimes a conversation leads to an exchange of cards which leads to getting together in person, often for a lunch meeting.

I was recently at a business lunch with someone I had met before many times but this was the first time we had a considering-doing-business-together meal. After our lunch was served, he looked down and commented that each of us had ordered something we didn’t have to pick up with our hands.

I knew it was a conscious decision on my part, but it was the first time I realized that other business people think the same way. The focus of a business meal should be business. Its not about the food. Order something that can be easily cut and eaten with a fork, won’t make a mess or cause comment. I eat a lot of salad, but at a restaurant, a salad can be hard to manage and are often huge, leaving you still eating when your meal partner is done.

Another key factor of a business meal is paying attention – to the discussion, the proposal, the opportunity – not the eating. I can be a disaster, so I try to avoid sauces, dressing and anything red or it may end up on me.

To manage stress and keep the focus on the conversation the number one thing that has helped me is to choose what I will eat before I get there. Many restaurants have their menu online – look it up and choose your meal. Don’t count on getting the the restaurant first, I’ve thought I was early only to find my dining companion waiting for me. This is especially helpful if you are particular. Once I had a business breakfast and the gentleman I met asked for all sorts of special preparation and then was dissatisfied when the order came. I couldn’t help but think he would be difficult to work with as well.

Going into a business meeting able to politely scan a menu while actually listening to the conversation is one of the best tricks I’ve learned. It is hard enough to meet a stranger in a restaurant, a little planning makes the whole thing much easier and more professional.

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Having created and hosted my first event, I wanted to give your the early results. It was a small event with 12 attendees. I had planned for 15-20 and there were four last minute cancellations. I was very stressed that the event would be too small, thinking that people would feel it was a waste of their time. I have attended networking events and been disappointed with turnout, I didn’t want people to feel that way at my event.

It didn’t, and here’s why:

  1. Networking wasn’t the focus. The event had a purpose and an activity, other than passing out cards.
  2. I didn’t call it networking. I used the word “social” and it felt like a party.
  3. I had a great room. The studio at Peterson Photography was set up with a couch, coffee table and some small bistro chairs. We spread the food and wine out in three stations so people would gather in small groups and move to get more wine, savory or sweet snacks.
  4. Small can be an advantage. Everyone who attended commented on how happy they were that it wasn’t big “like a networking thing”.
  5. Have someone else run the activity. When I have parties at home, I never get to see the guests. Having the main attraction as the portrait photography, the photographer and her assistant managed moving people in and out and I got to mingle.
  6. Invite some ringers. While my purpose was to meet new prospects, I also invited some colleagues who have become friends. Having a few people I know mixed in made it feel that much more social.
  7. Follow up. In addition to the new connections I made who already have thought of needs, We will be mailing their pictures along with some information as a secondary, subtle reinforcement. Having met both me and the photographer, they are much more likely to read about or businesses now.
  8. Lastly, I cold emailed to a list of 1700 people for four weeks and got only about 40 unsubscribes. If I had done the same thing with a newsletter about my company it would have been mass exodus, crossing those prospects off our list forever. I opened communication by offering something of value positioned well for my prospects and they responded by letting me speak to them.

I had three purposes when creating this event: build the image of my firm, get in the room with great prospects, and warm up an audience so I could email regularly about other programs and eventually other news. It has worked very well and we are in full swing promoting next month’s meatier and more expensive program, Social Media Connections, Making Then Work at Work.

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barn-cattle-cows-438382-lLately I have been attending and writing about small group networking options. This week I did the opposite. From one of the many social medias I follow I was invited to a brand new networking event called Spark. It was to be held one of the newest and most dramatic places downtown and I had been curious to see the space. The program was about generating and supporting new business ideas, which is always interesting and the price was practically free. Moreover, I have learned over time that  when I hear about a new networking event – just go. It is an opportunity to be in a room with lots of bright shiny new faces, and in this case lots and lots of new faces. The crowd was massive and diverse, but luckily dotted with a few familiar faces which makes getting started easier.

The great thing about attending a one-time or launch of an event is that there are no groups or cliques. Some people may come with a friend or colleague but most people are on their own and looking for someone to talk with. And since they served need-a-fork food I had an easy excuse to barge into a tall table grouping in order to eat. People always welcome you to their cluster if they see you juggling a glass a fork and a plate of food. Normally I don’t recommend filling both hands as it inhibits handshaking and card exchanging, but if you are heading to a table it can be an asset. While you are in the food line, look around for an opening at a likely table.

At a large event try not to get overwhelmed by the amount of bodies. You can use the same tricks to get comfortable as in a small group, and it is easier to have a discussion in a food line when it is moving slowly. It is also easier to melt away when others join a conversation and move on to meet more people.

Like any other event, try to have a few good conversations. Spend more time with people you are likely to do business with later and move on from people who are too many steps away from being a direct sale or resource. In a one-shot event, you can’t focus on who they may know, you won’t get to know anyone well enough to create an environment for a referral. Save that for your membership groups where you can build long-term relationships.

Lastly, if there are speaking sessions you are interested in go, if not there are always folks hanging back and still networking in the halls and cocktail room. When the masses head into the program, a huge event gets a lot smaller. If you hate crowds it will offer a welcome breather and a chance to get to know others who may feel the same way.

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A great way to expand your network and be recognized as a leader is to bring a few people together and see what happens. Need some ideas for what to do? Try these new ideas for finding common ground:

  1. Trending Topic — By following some local people on Twitter I saw a post from Valeria Maltoni of Conversation Agent about a free gathering to talk about social media.   I have learned to just go when I think something might be interesting and am usually glad I did. With coffee donated by Saxby’s and space provided by Villanova University, we had a dynamic breakfast gathering of about 20 people, only one of whom I had ever met before.
  2. Similar Client Focus — I was recently invited to a small lunch gathering by Julie Friedman Bacchini of Neptune Moon Design. We met once at a member-based networking group and she decided to invite me and 5 other people who all work with non-profits to a lunch.  I met some interesting people, got some new ideas and found a new writer to add to my list of resources.
  3. Cross Pollinating —  Know some people from one group who would be great for another? I have some peers from an association who are thinking of starting a new, niche association. They reached out to active members and mixed in other colleagues to explore the idea.
  4. Six Degrees — Years ago I met a dynamic marketer at Aramark. who is a generous referrer. Since we met, she has introduced me to a fabulous writer, and a number of other marketers. Those referrals have connected me to a brilliant strategist, subcontractors and a host of clients. I realized that the original contacts had all moved on and had not seen each other in person in years — a perfect time to arrange a lunch or drinks to thanks them for the bounty their efforts bring.
  5. Shared Need — A colleague recently introduced me to Linda Bandura, a startup marketer/designer. Within a week of meeting, Linda invited me to a head shot party she arranged with her photographer. It was a small gathering of women professionals to chat, drink tea and get that professional portrait taken that we need but all avoid. A fun way to network — and a brilliant way for a photographer to meet new prospects and a marketer to be seen as a leader. I liked it so much, I am thinking of planning one of my own and inviting clients and prospects.
  6. Fun for a Cause — Many nonprofits host social events as fundraisers. I was invited to join a group for Martini’s and Makeovers at Saks Fifth Avenue to support Dragonfly Forest, a camp for children with serious illnesses. Going to a public event with a few others you know makes it easier to try something new.
  7. Great Resource Discussion — Rather than your standard book group, try gathering to share your best resource. You could each share a synopsis of the lessons learned from a recent blog, webinar, conference or a favorite website.

An advantage of the micro-event is that it is once and done. No weekly meeting, no heavy preparation unless the group wants that. The purpose is to bring together people with some shared interest to then branch off and form their own new relationships.

The interesting thing about these events is that none of the leaders self promoted. Just coordinating and connecting raised their profile and left the impression of leadership — without saying a word other than “welcome” and “ I thought you might like to know each other”.  Think about what kind of mini-events you can plan to get to know new resources, referrers and prospects.

Looking for other ideas for how to connect in small groups, read Networking Goes Small.

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My niece started college this year at a large state university. Due to scheduling, she wasn’t able to join the club sport she participated in all through high school. It wasn’t long before she realized that she was having trouble finding a group among the masses and needed to find a way to scale down her experience. As a child she was a swimmer, so she joined the swimming club and has now found a group she can call her own. The huge crowd has been brought down to relationship scale.

When joining a new organization the size can often be overwhelming. Joining – or creating – a small group-within-a-group Is a great stepping stone to one-on-one relationships. Some trends to try:

  • Find a club — Affinity clubs help people bond over similar interests. Sharing a favorite activity with a small group is a great way to build contacts and friendships. If your favorite activity isn’t available, start your own.
  • Take it online – Online communities are great for addressing special interests. Facebook, LinkedIn and Flickr all have privacy settings that allow only members to see content. Connecting with members online often allows people to stay in touch and learn more about each other faster.
  • Bring it offline – Like everywhere else, in online communities people are seeking personal connection. Twitter users are connecting in person with local events called “tweetups”. Search www.search.twitter.com for events in your area. The NHL team the Washington Capitals created a LinkedIn group for fans and then invited them to a game. Read “A Different Look at Networking” to learn more. If you have joined a group and are only participating virtually, attend an in-person meet-up or plan one yourself.
  • Get social – Choose a few people you know a little and host a micro-event. Bringing together people you know who don’t know each other is a great way to get to know everyone better. For some great ideas, read 7 Ideas for Small Group Networking.

Sometimes the hardest part is getting to know the first few people. If you meet one person, ask him or her whom else you should know. Get a few of those people together to discuss a topic of common interest, industry trends, or just to meet others and you have a manageable event that is less stressful than a room full of people and more comfortable for some than a one-on-one lunch or meeting.

For people looking to make friends or build business relationships, a small group invitation can help avoid uncomfortable situations, confusion with dating, or worry about having enough to say. Next time you’d like to get to know someone better, invite a few others and see what happens.

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Networking is hard enough without being in the wrong room. Choosing the right organizations, where you have the best chance of feeling comfortable, showing up and meeting great people is key. Some great tips come from Jill Walser in an article titled “How I Overcame My Aversion to Networking and Learned to Love It”:

I initially looked at about eight different options and decided that the organizations I chose needed to meet four criteria:
1. They needed to be relevant to what I did.
2. They needed to have a face-to-face component and the people there needed to be happy to see me.
3. They needed to be filled with spark plugs – people very excited to be there and to be doing what they did for a living.
4. They needed to be easy to get to and offered at convenient times.

And to make it fun, try Ilise Benun’s tip:

You can even use [your nametag] to ask a question about a resource you need (“Know any good designers?”) Make it funny or unusual. Others will notice and see it as an invitation into conversation.

From her excellent article “How Not To Network”. Scroll down and read all the comments, there are some great ideas.

Jamie Ridler‘s strategy is to think differently about what you are doing. In her article “Give up Networking and Grow” she says:

“I’m that woman at the networking meeting having one more cup of coffee just to have something to do (and trust me, more caffeine doesn’t improve the situation). As a business owner, I knew I couldn’t go on like this. I had to do something to grow my circle, and I wanted to do it in a way that was authentic and that felt good.”

There are so many great ideas for overcoming reluctance to get involved. Try some of these and see if there is a gem in there for you.

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One of the things I always find fascinating is that people from the same company attend a networking meeting together and stay together the entire time. Many events have a stand-up networking time followed by a seated presentation or meal.  If you have come with colleagues — or just chatted with the folks you know during the open networking time, now is the time to change it up. Some tips to to find great networking seats:

  • When it is close to time to be seated, find someone new to talk to and then move with them to a seat.
  • Scout the tables as people are seating themselves. Look for one that is almost full so you have the most opportunity to meet people.
  • If you are more comfortable connecting with your own gender, look for tables that have someone you think you could talk to.
  • Think about your best clients – their gender, age, how they dress. It can give you clues to others who may be good prospects. I frequently work with marketing directors and have noticed that they often dress a bit more adventurously than others, so I look for someone in a brighter color, a pattern or fabulous shoes. If I am wrong, it still gives me something to compliment as a conversation opener.
  • If there will be a presentation, grab the seat at the back of the table. I recently got stuck in a front seat and had to figure out how to gracefully eat soup while watching the presenter who was behind me. Note to coordinators – think about what you are serving if your presenter will speak during the meal.
  • If it is not a meal, and the chairs are set up in rows, find someone to sit with whom you spoke to during open networking.
  • Look for others who did not come with colleagues and sit with them.

Networking doesn’t have to end when you sit down. With just a little observation and strategy, the whole event can be more productive.

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