I was at a conference this weekend in Las Vegas -- It's bad enough to fight with the recycled air, the perfumed-at-50-degrees conference rooms, and the endless fried foods that pass for "healthy," but you add in 200 people who have absolutely no clue how to network, and it's enough to make you pull an Ocean's Eleven and sneak out of the hotel in an ambulance.
Here are the top five ways to not screw up your next networking opportunity.
1) Networking doesn't begin when you get to the conference, it begins the second you leave your house.
Anyone is a potential hiring manager, client, or customer. True story: I was behind a real jackass at a ticket counter for an international flight last year. At one point, he actually had the nerve to say "Well, I work for company XYZ (A big global company), and I can make sure that we never give you any business again if you don't fix my problem," or something just as arrogant. At that point, the person behind me walked up to him, and said quietly "What's your name?" The arrogant slob said "Why do you care, pal?" To which the first gentleman said "Because I'm senior executive vice president at [said big global company,] and I won't have anyone sullying our good name with their petty bullshit."
I'm pretty sure the arrogant guy doesn't work for the company anymore. In today's world, you've simply got to be on your best behavior. I can promise you, if you're a screaming jerk at check-in, or on the rental car bus, or virtually anywhere, and I happen to be there, I'll be the guy with the FlipCam, posting your idiot rant onto YouTube. Why? Because I can. You don't want to be the guy in the video. Besides -- I know a lot of people -- What if I know your boss? Or what if you find me one day as the guy doing the hiring?
2) Turns out, "It doesn't always have to be about you!" is actually a good comment. As we sit down at the conference lunch, I don't need to know what you do, how well you do it, how many awards you've received for doing it, and how you're pretty sure you can do it for me if I'd simply pay you to, all before I've had sip one of my watered down iced tea.
Here's a thought -- Try making it about someone else for a change -- Instead of sitting down and launching into your pre-rehearsed litany of how great you are, what about shutting up and listening once in a while? Put the business-card-Uzi away, and don't rapid fire them to anyone within range. You know how it seems how some people are only listening to find a break in the conversation so they can talk? Don't be that person. Ask questions! It's the ultimate way to learn, and allows you the opportunity to actually contribute something of value to the conversation, as opposed to the spiel of your latest victory. Remember: Value gets remembered, verbal diarrhea simply gets recalled -- and not in a good way.
3) Going up to the speaker at the end of her speech ensures only one thing: You'll be one of a hundred people going up to the speaker at the end of her speech. So rather than giving yourself the opportunity to not get noticed in the slightest, why not buck the crowd? Find the speaker twenty minutes before they go on stage, and introduce yourself. On your business card, write "I'm the one who met you before your speech. You'll be remembered.
4) Do something different: My business card is a poker chip. You can't scan it in, you don't want to throw it out. You keep it on your desk and play with it. I've seen other business cards that were actual credit cards, bottle openers -- Anything but a boring piece of cardboard. Try and be original. If you're creative enough to give me something I'll remember, chances are I'll want to do some business with you.
5) Finally -- Be wary of making the leap from "Met you at the conference" to "Friending you on Facebook so you can see photos of me in my speedo." Until Facebook becomes the norm and networking is ubiquitous with it, (probably 24 months) there are still people wary of it. And until you learn what to post online and what not to post, remember that not everyone is going to assume that a FB connection request is either a) acceptable or b) worth their time. We'll get there, but we're not there yet. We'll eventually learn what's acceptable and what's not -- because in the end, we'll only have one network -- It'll have everyone in our lives, both business and professional, and we'll have to be smart enough to know that what we post can be seen by everyone, forever. Until we are, asking a potential business contact who doesn't know you that well to till your crops on Farmville is just asking for trouble. (And massive ridicule.)
6) Bonus rule: It's no one's fault but your own if your personal or professional brand isn't seen as you want it. It's not Facebook's fault, it's not Twitter's fault, it's not LinkedIn's fault -- It's your fault. Make sure to keep up appearances as you want them to be. Otherwise, you've got no one to blame but yourself.
Peter Shankman sold his social media company HARO (http://helpareporter.com) to Vocus, Inc. in June of this year. He spends the majority of his time tweeting as @petershankman, and doesn't take his Blackberry with him if he's going to be drinking. He blogs at http://shankman.com