If there’s one thing that greases the wheels of commerce and keeps them spinning, it’s networking. Getting the chance to ‘press the flesh’ at a networking event is hugely important, and even in this era of instant internet accessibility a face-to-face is still the best way to make first contact in the world of business.
However, networking isn’t just for high-flying executives and corporate go-getters. It’s a great hunting ground for graduates and students looking to make their first inroads into the corporate world, too. Play it right and a networking meeting or business breakfast could have a crucial role in getting your career out of the blocks and off to a flying start.
But if this is your first foray into the world of ‘power breakfasts’ and ‘meet and greets’, how do you make a good first impression and get the most from your experience? Here are our five top tips on how to excel at networking for students.
Don’t be intimidated
It can be incredibly intimidating attending your first networking event, but don’t end up hiding in a corner. You’re here to present yourself as a viable and attractive potential employee, so make sure you sell yourself properly.
Don’t slouch or avoid making eye contact, but by the same token don’t try and stare people down either. You’re here to make friends, not frighten potential employers off.
Remember that as much as 90% of communication between human beings is taken from visual cues, not verbal ones, so try to relax and make sure those smiles are genuine (employers used to dealing with interviewees can tell instantly if a smile is fake or forced). Your physical presence will give your potential employers far more information about you as a person than you realise, so make sure you’re sending out the right messages.
Prepare before you dive in
Never go into a network event without preparing beforehand. You have a limited window of opportunity to make a good impression so just as you would for an interview, do your research. Who is going to be there? What kind of business do they run, and are they your ‘dream employer’?
As well as preparing questions for other attendees (including a few ice-breakers and conversation starters), make sure you have some responses ready too, as coming up with a reply that doesn’t start with ‘Err…’ when you’re put on the spot can be tough. It also helps you to avoid one-word responses, as these effectively stop a conversation in its tracks.
Be smart and dress smart
First impressions are usually formed within a three-second window of meeting someone. We know it can be a mistake to judge a book by its cover, but we all do it instinctively – it’s basically hard-wired into our psyche. So as much as you’d like to kick back against this and be yourself, you do need to think about the environment you’re walking into and how people are perceived within that situation.
Don’t do ‘quirky’, but if you can be distinctive without being over the top then try to strike a balance between professionalism and personality. So while a charity badge or interesting piece of jewellery is a great conversation starter, a ‘comedy tie’ will send potential employers scurrying for the door.
Keep the flow going
If you strip away all the corporate bells and whistles and are completely honest about it, networking meetings are very similar to speed dating sessions. You have a few brief minutes to make an impression before the person you’re talking to moves onto the next contact. It’s important to keep the flow of conversation going without monopolising things, so make sure you give the person you’re talking to a chance to contribute too.
If things are looking good, tell them that you’re interested in talking to them further but recognise that this isn’t the time or the place for a lengthy discussion. Ask for their contact details and tell them you’ll be in touch, and always thank them for their time. After all, manners matter, especially when you’re starting out on your career path.
If you have swapped contact details with someone then make absolutely sure you follow up after the meeting. If you’ve promised to send your CV then make certain it’s in their inbox that afternoon. If you’ve been asked to call and arrange a meeting then make sure you make that call. After all, if a potential employer has picked you out of a room full of networking graduates, it means you’ve made a good impression and they want to know more about you. Congratulations, you’ve officially networked!
Jordan Wilson is a marketing graduate and writes about careers advice for CGMA, a joint venture recognised around the world for representing management accountants.