Even though I speak to groups for financial professionals ranging from 20 to 5,000, I’m a pretty shy person when it comes to networking events. Over the years I’ve learned to get pretty good at these types of business-building events. In this column I’d like to tell you what I’ve learned, so you can turn networking events from boring affairs to business building opportunities.

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1. Know who you want to meet.

Before you decide to go to any type of networking event, you need to know what types of people go there, to be sure that they are people you want to meet. Unless you’re just out to have a good time, choosing the wrong kind of event will be a waste of your valuable time. There are three types of people you want to meet at networking events: 1) potential clients; 2) potential Centers of Influence; and 3) people who represent interesting products and services you might be able to refer to your clients.  When deciding to go, make sure at least one of these categories is represented among the event’s attendees.

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2. Networking is a process.

My colleague, Lynne Waymon (author of the book Great Connections) relates a story of a salesperson who once said, “I tried networking once; it doesn’t work.” Although you can often turn a single networking event into a successful experience, you usually get the most out a group when you attend several meetings, you get active with the members, and you begin to create a reputation for yourself.  Networking is not a one-time event, it’s a process.

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3. Go to give, not to take.

One of the biggest mistakes I see at events is that many people are there to just “get” and not “give.”  Yet the folks who usually get the most out of networking are the ones who go to events looking for ways to help others. It’s amazing how that works. One of the best things you can say to someone at an event (if they are in sales or own a small business), “If I ran into someone who was a good prospect for your business, how would I know it? Tell me who a good prospect for you is.” After you learn about them, you can talk to them about what you do, and how you help people.

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4. Have a goal for each event.

I’ve found that when I have a specific goal for an event, my results are always more pronounced. I usually set a goal of how many new people I want to meet. This keeps me from staying “comfortable” with people I already know.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to maintain and grow relationships with people whom you already know, but if you don’t stretch a little each time, your results will probably diminish over time. Your goal may be to meet a specific person. Having this as a goal might keep you from wimping out.

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5. Act like the host, not a guest.

The only time I’m not shy at events is when I’m the speaker. This is because I see myself as the host. When you’re the host of a party in your home, you meet everyone — you make sure they’re enjoying themselves, etc. When you act like the host at a business event, you’ll feel freer to meet strangers. One great way to meet new people is to work the registration table for 30-45 minutes. By welcoming people to the event, you’ll feel much more comfortable going up to them later.

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6. Write notes on business cards.

When you meet someone with whom you’d like to maintain contact (for whatever reason), make sure you get their business card and write notes about your conversation on the back. This way, when you take a stack of cards out of your pocket the next day, you’ll know exactly what you talked about and what your plan of action is. When you give someone your business card because they want to contact you about something later, write a note on your card as you give it to them. This will remind them why they have your card. By the way, if you do a lot of networking, be careful not to have every inch of your business card covered with type or colored ink. Make sure there’s a little space left for new contacts to write notes about you on your card.

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7. Follow up after events.

One of the biggest networking mistakes I see is that people fail to follow up with the people they meet at events. Either they forget what they have someone’s card, they get distracted by other business, or they wimp out. For whatever reason, if you fail to follow up, you’ve just wasted your time. The day after I’ve been to an event, the first thing I do is go through the cards I’ve collected. I send everyone either an email or a hand-written note, and I put the appropriate action step into my computer to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

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