Networking 101 (for those who hate networking)

Philadelphia is fast becoming a hot destination for conventions and conferences. Most conventions are actually more about networking and less about programming: For many industries, you can figure out trends through trade publications. While intimidating to some, networking is easier than you might think. Here is some advice on how to navigate a convention without coming off as smarmy.

Business is all about relationships

No matter your industry, business is all about relationships. Networking isn’t about the number of people you meet or how many business cards you collect, but on making real connections. Look people in the eye and focus on being genuine and authentic. Try to build trust and relationships by finding ways you can help others.

Volunteer your time

Every organization needs volunteers, especially during an annual meeting or convention. Review the marketing materials for any event and visit the organization’s website to find the main contact and e-mail them a few months in advance. Thank them for putting the conference together and explain that you are interested in helping make this the best year ever! Offer your time, expertise, creativity or connections to help improve the event. If you are uneasy about meeting new people, this is a great way to stay visible and give back to groups that have helped you.

Be strategic

This is a tough thing to learn, yet it is crucial to successful networking. Conventions and professional-development workshops are a great way to gain access to thought leaders and power players in your industry. Convention programs often provide a list of names and contact information for guests and most professional organizations distribute a membership directory once a year. Review the directories and organization’s programming calendar to decide whom you’d like to meet and why. If they are speaking or presenting at an event, attend it and arrive early. Prepare open-ended questions for the Q&A. Frame your questions so that the speaker’s answer tells you “who, what, where, when and how” rather than a simple yes or no response. Approach the speaker(s) after the program to thank him or her and convey what you liked or found interesting about the session. This is also a great chance to ask for more information about a topic over coffee or lunch.

Don’t be that guy or gal

At every convention there are those people who annoy because they network ineffectively. We have all encountered them — the wallflower, the celebrity hound, the card whore and the Saran Wrap. Wallflowers sit in a far corner of the room because they are too afraid to mix and mingle. They typically have a weak handshake, come across as insecure and often end up being ignored. Celebrity hounds stalk the most important person at the convention for a handshake or Facebook photo. Saying that you met someone is frivolous at best; instead focus on having something useful to say. Card whores pass out business cards like they’re the cure for cancer. They gloat over the quantity of people they meet, not the quality of the relationships. Like the Plastics from “Mean Girls,” Saran Wraps cling to you as soon as you meet and assume that you are automatically BFFs (best friends forever). They don’t leave your side for the entire conference. You can avoid being “that guy or gal” by actively listening to what people have to say, looking people in the eye when you speak with them and only giving out your card to those people with whom you plan to follow up. Follow Hillary Clinton’s lead. If you only have 30 seconds with someone, make it 30 seconds of warmth and sincerity.

Become a resource for others

Come prepared. Review business publications and industry trades. Be able to offer your opinions on industry trends and ask others their thoughts on the topic at scheduled networking events. If you know the area well, offer your recommendations on restaurants and other local points of interest. This does not end with the convention. When you are known as a strong resource, people remember to turn to you for suggestions, ideas, names of other people, etc. This keeps you visible to them.

Follow up, follow up, follow up

This cannot be stressed enough. The most essential part of continuing a relationship is following up with the people you meet quickly and efficiently. There are many different ways of doing this. Some people prefer handwritten notes, some prefer e-mails, others call. Find what works best for you and follow up within a week. It will help build these new relationships and demonstrate that you are responsible.

Lastly, see and be seen. It will get you further than you think.

Kevin A. Barry is a fundraiser at the University of Pennsylvania and sits on the board of directors for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. His significant experience in fundraising and public relations his made him an expert in the art of professional networking. He can be reached at [email protected].