From small talk to strong connections: Navigating the world of offline networking

Feb 21, 2023 - updated Feb 08, 2024

5 mins

From small talk to strong connections: Navigating the world of offline networking
Debbie Garrick

Freelance writer and translator, ex-recruiter

In today’s fast-paced world, knowing how to build a network is a must-have skill for advancing your career. And with Zoom meetings and LinkedIn existing among many virtual networking tools, online networking using social media has become the standard, with 875 million users on LinkedIn and 40% of them posting every single day. Social media is free, it’s not location dependent, and a lot of the time you don’t even have to show up live, or on camera. So this begs the question: are offline networking events still worth your time when it comes to building a network?

Career coach and networking expert Brett Lyle, and author of High Energy Networking Joe Apfelbaum, agree that in-person networking events are more effective for building stronger, more meaningful business relationships. Lyle explains, “There’s just an energy to in-person networking that you don’t get when you network online.” It might feel easier online because you feel more comfortable as if you’re not putting yourself out there, but both types of networking should work in symbiosis. “I like to use in-person social behaviors for both offline and online networking because people are familiar and comfortable with them.” It follows the basics of social engagement and interaction. Apfelbaum also puts forward a strong case, “Meeting people offline is special, only 7% of an interaction is about the words, the rest is tone, body language, intention, and energy.” And that’s all the more evident when you meet people and network face-to-face.

So how can you build a network at networking events)? It’s all about building relationships. And, contrary to what you might think if you’ve never dipped into networking, it’s not about making a sales pitch.

Start by doing your research

If you have no clue how to network, start by doing your research. Find out about events near you and what you think you might enjoy. Apfelbaum recommends starting with a smaller event, maybe just five people, so you can practice on a smaller scale and it feels less scary. If you can’t find anything small enough, he suggests creating your own networking event.

Next, figure out your goal. Why are you attending the event and what do you hope to get out of it? If you have a goal in mind and you focus on it, you’ll have something to measure the success of the networking event by. You might say you’re going to introduce yourself to five people, or you want to make one meaningful connection, or as Lyle suggests, find someone you’d want to have lunch with—that’s a great sign of an authentic connection. Be clear on your intention from the outset so you can see your efforts are worthwhile.

Lyle describes 4 stages you can follow when learning how to build a network.

  • Engagement: making that first step, smiling and saying hello.
  • Connection: having a conversation, engaging in small talk.
  • Relationship building: finding out about them and how their day is going.
  • Productive professional relationship: you have a group of people you go to for the important stuff. They pick up the phone and answer your ask, and you do the same for them. They’re invested in the outcome. You add value for them or vice versa.

Prepare ahead of the networking event

There are no golden rules on how to build a network, but preparation is key. Lyle and Apfelbaum take slightly different approaches here, but both advocate authenticity. You have to be true to yourself.

Approach #1: Playing the long game

Lyle recommends networking as a way of life. She says that you should always be looking to build relationships, be that your neighbors, someone you meet on a plane, or a connection at a networking event. Preparing involves being able to read non-verbal communication cues, being mindfully approachable, and being technically accessible. “Building the relationship is the goal, and then when the moment presents itself you can slip in that you’re looking for a new position, or whatever it is that you need.” Think about the sort of questions you can ask. Be ready to talk succinctly about your passions and goals so you can communicate them clearly.

Approach #2: Hit the ground running

Apfelbaum takes a more direct approach and suggests preparing your elevator pitch. It can be 5, 10, 30 seconds, or even a minute. It shouldn’t be the same each time, even though what you’re looking for might be. It can involve a poem or a rap and even props (he has used all of these at one time or another), but it should also involve a question to get people involved. “Keep it short and make sure you’re focussed on the benefit you bring to people. You don’t have to include everything you do, you can add a little mystery.” Think about who you’re pitching to and what’s relevant to them—a group of students aren’t looking for the same thing as a group of CEOs.

Create a good first impression

Princeton researchers found that we make judgments about people within a tenth of a second. So first impressions really do count.

Lyle reminds us that an initial smile and hello are what open up the conversation—if you do nothing and get nothing back, you can’t build a network. Creating a good impression isn’t about being who you think people think you should be. When it comes to building a network, the key is being authentic. You’ll then connect with people who relate to that, without it feeling fake or forced.

Dress the part

Apfelbaum and Lyle both advocate dressing for the occasion, looking professional, and fitting with what the venue demands, but equally being comfortable and feeling good about yourself.

Apfelbaum isn’t a huge fan of ties and suggests business casual is the way to go if that’s appropriate. Lyle suggests wearing layers so you can adapt to what makes you feel comfortable when you can see what others are wearing. Have a jacket on top, then a shirt/blouse underneath, and a tank top below, that way you can ensure you feel at ease.

Combating the fear factor

Knowing how to build a network is great, but to do it you have to master the fear of walking into a room of strangers. Networking comes naturally to extroverts, but for everyone else, preparation and mindset can go a long way to helping overcome the fear.

Lyle’s approach takes the fear out of the situation from the get-go: making new friends isn’t scary, so networking doesn’t have to be. You can build your confidence by doing it and practicing everywhere you go—rather than just at specific networking events. “Confidence is knowing you can do something, courage is being afraid and doing it anyway!”

Apfelbaum has a few networking tips for feeling more at ease. “To get over the fear, you have to prepare.” The unknown is scary so the more you know about the event in advance, the more in control you’ll be. He also suggests taking some time to settle yourself in the room and get comfortable before engaging in conversation. Another way to overcome the fear is to play the host and welcome people into the room—this will help you as you’ll realize others are nervous too. During the event, when you’re chatting to people you can always ask who else they know, who’s the most interesting person in the room, and who you should absolutely talk to, and that will give you an opening when approaching the next person.

Follow-up with your new contacts

Both of our experts agree, there’s no point in networking without following up. Both of them say you should follow up there and then, while you are at the networking event. Business cards can work as long as they’re good quality, but there are better ways to stay in touch, such as a digital card or connecting directly with them in the moment on LinkedIn. (Pro tip: you can get a QR code to your LinkedIn profile via the app. Simply click on the search button at the top of the screen, and then on the scan icon in the top right corner.) Search them up while you’re with them and have them check you’ve found the right profile before adding them. Both Lyle and Apfelbaum recommend taking selfies, and Lyle suggests then sending that to your new contact with a little message about how and where you met. It can help to jog both your memories later.

Now you know how to build a network, maybe it’s time to kick that social media addiction and give networking events a try. Apfelbaum says that relationship building can change your life, and Lyle would agree. Armed with their expert networking tips, you can create a mutually beneficial network you enjoy being a part of while remaining true to who you are.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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