By Lisa Cefali
Despite the amount of texting and online communication that consumes us, the face-to-face impression when business networking is still key and you need to ace it.
The most articulate individual over email or quick responder via text can crash and burn when asked to attend a business function.
So, how does one work a room to get business done and leave a lasting impression?
Here are seven helpful hints to make sure your first impression counts:
1. Eat before you arrive.
Yes, there will be appetizers served, but really they are there to create ambience and are a side to the alcohol being served.
Remember, you are there to meet contacts. Imagine the first impression you provide if you have greasy fingers that make shaking hands difficult; you are slurping chicken off bones to get every last bite; or are walking around with greenery or cracked pepper stuck in your teeth.
It doesn’t matter who you are nor what position you hold – it’s not a good look!
If you must eat something because you are having a beverage or were not able to eat earlier, then go to the buffet table, make yourself a small plate of safe foods that won’t remain with you after the last gulp, finish your snack, wash your hands, ensure you are presentable and then begin your purposeful networking – which is why you’re at this event in the first place!
The ability to hold a glass of wine and a plate in one hand, nibble and carry on a meaningful conversation is very difficult and I would only recommend it to the most seasoned individuals.
If there is a dessert bar, watch the cream filling, so that it doesn’t spill onto your blouse or tie – and whatever you do, do not lean into the chocolate fountain to avoid it dripping onto your clothes!
2. Drink responsibly – both in quality and in quantity.
It is a known fact that it is socially more comfortable for everyone to have a drink in hand. Whether it’s alcoholic or non-alcoholic, choose a beverage that is easy to sip.
Although great tasting, a Caesar that causes the celery to hit you on the cheek or leaves a trail of seasoned salt on your lips is not the best choice for creating a first impression. Save the Caesars or any complicated drinks with garnishes for the patio.
At one of the first events I ever attended as the hostess, one of my board members commented that I was a “half glass president.”
This is the time when your glass can be half empty! You need to be fully coherent to make every first impression with everyone you meet a good one. Now is not the time to be “tossing it back.” There is nothing wrong with limiting your drinks so that you are walking around with half a glass of wine or half a cocktail in hand.
3. Shake hands.
As you meet each individual, extend your right hand – yes, even if you are left-handed – and provide a firm handshake. But not aggressively firm.
I have pulled away one too many times with my rings imprinted into my fingers, hand numbly pressed into a contorted position for the next 10 minutes.
Further, the ability to shake hands implies you are not eating and actually have a free hand to extend. We have all been witness to it. The individual is caught off guard. He or she chews and smiles (nice see-food), quickly wipes his or her hands briefly on a napkin or their pants and then extends the hand across! Ew!
This is not a good first impression but is definitely a memorable impression of you the next time a person sees you. Shaking hands is a time honoured ritual that is still good business. Do it well!
4. Hand out your business cards respectfully.
Too often I have seen the overzealous business person introduce his or her self and immediately shove a card into my hand.
If you want a better first impression, introduce yourself, shake hands and start conversing. Determine whether the individual may want your card. Could it be good business for both of you? If the answer is “yes” and you want to be remembered, ask for permission: “Can I give you my business card?”
Chances are they will always say “yes,” however asking is much more effective than forcing them to take it.
Now what if you don’t get a card in return? Well, think about that. They may not want to give you one, as they may not want to do business with you. Or they may have run out of cards! Simply ask for one. Whether you get one or not, the next step is the same.
Write a note to yourself on the back of the card you have received (or a card of your own if you did not receive one) that will serve as a reminder of the connection you just made with that person. This will be very effective in making a great impression when you are able to follow up with a call and say something relevant.
5. Prepare for your networking conversation.
Beyond introducing yourself and sharing what you do, or who you are with, you need to be articulate. Yes, real conversation where you can’t hide behind texts, LOLs, smiley faces, selfies, or emails that you have corrected, rewritten and spellchecked!
You need to be able to hold a conversation with real people face-to-face.
With all the technology that we use and the level of texting that is used to communicate, the face-to-face conversation can be the most intimidating and difficult.
How do you prepare for a conversation with a complete stranger? The reality is, most business networking functions are multi-generational so you need to find common ground.
If the conversation falls flat on the business side, can you speak about a common topic? For example, is it hockey playoff time? What are some of the current events in recent weeks? Is it close to the weekend? Is it cottage season?
Think about topics that you can easily and intellectually speak about. Do not sound off on the daily highlights from the morning news – make sure you know some details.
People love to talk about themselves so prepare a few questions that you can ask to further the first impression into a conversation of substance. The questions do need to be relevant and specific – “How about them Jets?” won’t get you all that far. Just be prepared, plan your questions, ask one, listen first and listen well.
6. Put away your phone – for real.
I know it is tempting to leave it on or to put it on vibrate. However, you know if it vibrates, you will be tempted to check it.
For the two hours you are business networking, your phone needs to be off. Period. You are there to work the room, meet people and conduct business.
The individual you are speaking with is the most important person to you at that moment. Sending or reading a text or checking emails on your smart phone while you should be talking makes you look unprofessional.
Even if you find yourself in a small group of three or four and you are not part of the topic of conversation right at that moment, you could be, so you need to be focused.
If you know ahead of time that there is an important call coming in, place your phone on vibrate, excuse yourself, extend a thank you, leave the physical space with the group you are with and then take your call.
7. Say goodbye – simple, but oft forgotten.
When you are leaving each conversation and at the end of an event, thank people for their time and say goodbye. This is especially important when you are leaving the conversation if you are in a mini-group.
It removes the awkwardness of simply walking away as others are speaking to each other. A simple “thank you” and “goodbye” is all that is needed. Do not go on about heading back to the office for another few hours, or saying how many emails you still need to get to or that you have another big meeting you are now going to attend.
You are in a room with busy, professional people. Everyone in the room has many emails, work they could go back to, and multiple events to attend. Announcing this may sound to you like simple small talk or you may think that it demonstrates what a dedicated and focused employee you are, however, remember that this is all about first impressions.
To some you could simply look like you are trying to falsely impress them or are disorganized with what you can and cannot get done in a day. Be present for the full conversation – from “hello” to “goodbye.”