Imagine this: You’ve just walked into a crowded room full of strangers. Your mission is to meet new people, make friends and build a network.

Go! Start networking!

This used to be my mission (and nightmare) every time I had to go to a networking event, party or group get-together. And I always would end up wondering, “Why did I even come to this thing?”

Networking events suck. Parties full of strangers suck. Trying to work a room sucks. Here’s the thing I’m here to tell you: It doesn’t have to suck. I was so tired of going to events that were a waste of time, overwhelming or awkward that I decided to find a way to change it.

As a recovering awkward person, I figured out the art and science of hacking a networking event. Today, I am going to share those tricks with you.

1. Name Tag Tip

I have an insider tip on name tags: always, always look at other people’s name tags before filling out yours. I can’t tell you how many times it’s happened to me where I look like a giant nerd because I have filled out my full name and company and everyone else just has their first name. Or worse, I just write my first name and everyone else practically has their resume written on their chest. Save yourself the pain and get in the habit of checking out others first.

2. Create A Relationship Action Plan

Have you sat down and planned your networking efforts? In his book, Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi says that a fatal mistake people make is failing to realize that building a strong network is just like any other goal. You need an action plan that outlines who you want to build connections with and how you plan on doing it. Here’s how to make your Relationship Action Plan:

  • Make two lists. The first one will be people you’ve met and want to strengthen your relationship with. Examples include colleagues, cool people you’ve met at events and other acquaintances. The second list will be people you want to meet. For example, leaders at work, members of a community you want to be involved in or influencers in your niche.
  • Create an action plan. Take each list and decide on actions you’re going to take to meet or strengthen your relationship with each person. As you do this, strategize the best ways to connect with each individual. For example, if you’re meeting for the first time, focus on making a great first impression. Or, if you already know the person, find ways to talk to them more often by setting up monthly coffee dates.
  • Update your Relationship Action Plan regularly as you foster connections and develop new goals. The more deliberate you are in your networking efforts, the faster you’ll build relationships.

3. What to do at a Networking Event

The biggest rookie mistake I see is when people plant themselves right at the entrance of a networking event to meet people. This is the worst spot! Here’s why:

When people walk into an event you have to give them time to breathe! Instinctively, when we are in a new place around new people we want two things: Nourishment (typically a drink or food) and to survey the room. So, don’t plant yourself right in the doorway. Anyone you pounce on right as they enter only will be thinking about getting something from the bar, loading up a plate or trying to check out the room surreptitiously over your head.

The best place to stand is right where people leave when exiting the bar. This way, they have a drink in their hand and they are ready to mingle. This is always where I plant myself when I’m at networking events and it makes for super easy conversations.

how to network

4. Treasure Lines

Never pass up the opportunity to meet someone while standing in line. It is the easiest, non-awkward way to meet the person in front of and possibly even behind you. The bonus is that if you don’t enjoy speaking with them, you easily can end the conversation once you get your drink or food. At a networking event where I really don’t know anyone, I will get back in line when it is extra long so I can meet more people easily. If you need help thinking of something to say, check out our killer conversation starters.

5. Use the Head Tilt

It can be hard to make real connections at networking events, but it’s possible. And I do it using body language. My favorite move is the head tilt. The head tilt is the universal body language sign for “I’m listening.” You can do this when someone is speaking to show you are paying attention and excited to meet them. This makes you more charismatic.

head tilt

6. Be a Business Card Master

Two problems always happen with business cards at networking events. First, awkwardly searching for your business card when someone asks for it. Or second, losing someone’s business card so you can’t follow up the next day. Avoid having to dig through your purse or wallet to find a business card or losing the ones you get by using my system–right pocket: my business cards, left pocket: other people’s business cards. You’ll never lose a card again and it makes the exchange super easy. By the way, if you have a purse, use one pocket for yours and one for someone else’s.

Action Step: Is your business card boring? Read our guide on making your business cards rock.

Insider Tip: A great blog post on Eventbrite also suggests Peeping the Guestlist before an event, which really can help you target the right people.

7. The Name Association Trick

Remembering names can be a nightmare, especially when you have met someone multiple times! I am going to show you how to never forget a name again. Researchers from Emory University attempted to improve people’s name retention and recall over three sessions. In the first session, each participant took a face recall test to establish their baseline ability. In the following sessions, each participant was taught a memory strategy. After only a month, the participants significantly improved their recall ability, some up to 69 percent!

Here’s what they learned. Attach a visual cue to a unique facial or body feature. This memory strategy comes from the EON-Mem (Ecologically Oriented Neurorehabilitation of Memory) program. Here is an example: This is my friend Lacy. If I met her at a party, I would think her hair looks just like an Ace with the pointed A top. Ace = L-Ace-Y

lacy kirkland, how to remember names

Use this technique and you always will remember people’s names. It also will help improve your creativity!

8. Diversify

Humans are social creatures. We thrive by helping each other grow. Nearly everything you accomplish is a result of the people you spend time with. From sharing information about new opportunities to playing an influential role in your personal development, your network – every person you know – is there supporting you along the way. This is why building relationships is such an important skill. Every person you meet is a vault containing a wealth of insight, knowledge and experience. As you get to know people, you get to share that wealth and use it to make your own life richer and more successful.

This is why having a large, diverse network is critical to success. But, how do you build one?

  • Pick a tangential niche. Think about the circles you frequent — are there any tangential circles? For example, when I first moved to Portland, Oregon, I joined every entrepreneur group in town. Very quickly, I met the community and stopped growing my relationships because the same (amazing) people kept showing up. I thought about what circles could be close to entrepreneurs, but not the same. I tried travel groups next. Entrepreneurs often travel since they can work virtually, and I got to meet new entrepreneurs as well as fascinating individuals who travel the world.
  • Find anchor tenants. Ferrazzi calls the first people you connect with in a group ‘anchor tenants’ and the principle is if you earn their respect, then you instantly gain credibility with the anchor tenant’s friends. Not only is this a great strategy to meet people outside of your social circle, it also saves you time. Rather than trying to connect with an entire group of individuals, you can focus on one or two key people and get to know the rest later.

9. Work the Food Tables

It is great to stand where people exit the bar, But DON’T stand where people exit with food. This is not as good, because if you start speaking to someone with a full plate of food, it is hard to shake hands and all they want to do is eat! Instead of standing where people exit the food station, you can stand at cocktail tables or seat yourself at tables where people eat. This is much easier because people can put their plate down and chat as they eat casually. Plus, studies show that breaking bread with someone builds rapport faster than just talking.

10. Help Others

“Can I help you?” Asking this question is one of the most effective ways to build long-lasting connections. Once you help someone, you instantly become more likable because you relieved some of their stress and added value to their life. Just like showing your appreciation, offering to help is a strategy that will earn you a positive reputation because you’re focusing on other people and not yourself.

“The more people you help, the more help you’ll have and the more help you’ll have helping others.” – Never Eat Alone

How you help people doesn’t have to be difficult. All you need to do is offer your knowledge and/or your time – a small price to pay to gain a new relationship, especially with influential people who often need the most help. You also can help others by harnessing your curiosity. This is one of my favorite tips for being more social. When you’re speaking with people, think about answering the following questions:

  • What motivates this person?
  • What is important to them?
  • What energizes them?
  • What do they love to talk about?
  • What shuts them down or closes them off?
  • What do they value?

Make it your goal to answer these questions about every person you are speaking with to give yourself a social mission. Before you know it, the person will find you fascinating, even though you have been trying to learn about them!

11. Learn the Science of Sparkling Conversation

It can be hard to drum up conversation with a stranger. In my book, Captivate, I have broken down conversation into three categories:

  • The First Five Minutes: This is your first impression and when you decide if someone is worth getting to know. It can happen professionally, romantically or socially. This level is the front door — can you get invited inside someone’s inner circle?
  • The First Five Hours: Once you have made it past the first level, you get to have a first meeting, first phone call or first date. This is when you move past first impressions into rapport building.
  • The First Five Days: This is the final level. You want people in this level who you would be happy to accompany on a weekend road trip. It’s the ultimate level of trust and connection. This could be romantic — with a partner, but it also could be with a long-term business partner or best friend.

Be sure you know how to master each level.

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes that “The more acquaintances you have, the more powerful you are.” Unlike your close friends and colleagues, your acquaintances thrive in a different social universe than you do. The result is they know about jobs and networking opportunities that no one else in your inner circle does. In fact, 83 percent of people who find their jobs through a current contact do so through people they see only occasionally, if at all. So, those Facebook friends you haven’t spoken to in a while… it might be time to check in again. Who knows what valuable information they may have to offer?

12. Become a Master Mentor/Mentee

Mentorships are one of the most valuable relationships you can invest in. There’s no better way to get ahead and expand your network than to spend time with people who already have achieved your same goals.

“A successful mentoring relationship needs equal parts utility and emotion.” – Never Eat Alone

Though the goal of mentorship is driving measurable progress, it’s not just about sharing advice and results. The best mentors genuinely care about their mentees and are personally invested in their careers. Mentorships often are seen as a one-sided relationship. However, great mentors gain just as much value from their mentees. Benefits include:

  • Mentees often are your most loyal acquaintances. Once they become successful, you can count on them to return the favor in the form of knowledge, connections or other assistance in the future.
  • They offer fresh perspectives. Younger mentees in particular can help you keep up to date with the latest trends.
  • You discover new ways to solve problems by helping them overcome obstacles in their careers.

13. Leverage Social Capital

“It should be your goal not to meet the most people as possible, but to understand who else is connected to whom and what the rest of the network looks like.” –David Burkus

A study conducted by Ronald Burt found that executives who learn about network structures are 36 percent to 42 percent more likely to improve their performance and 42 percent to 74 percent more likely to be promoted. I sat down with social capital expert David Burkus in our YouTube series, The World’s Most Interesting People to discuss how you can increase your social capital:

14. You + Touch = Influence

touch zonesTouch is one of our most powerful but underused tools. Why? Because it releases something called oxytocin. Oxytocin is the chemical that makes us feel connection. When we are bonded with someone, building rapport or have a strong relationship, oxytocin courses through our brain. One of the things that causes a surge in oxytocin is touch.

So, when you can use it properly, you instantly can build connection. One study had librarians briefly touch certain patron’s hands as they checked out books. Every patron who received a light touch on the arm rated the librarian more favorably and more likable. Just this simple gesture increased the librarians’ likability score. In another study, waitstaff touched specific diners on the arm or hand when they dropped off the bill. Those diners who received the touch gave a 41 percent higher tip! That means touch not only makes you more charismatic, but also brings you more income.

Touch is great ONLY when you use it properly. To do this, you have to know the touch map. Here is the rule of thumb you want to remember: The closer toward the center of the body, the more intimate the level of touch. So the hand, forearm and elbow are safe areas and better for professional settings.

The head and torso only should be used with people you are extremely close with. A quick note here: some people (even if it is in the “safe zone”) do not like to be touched. If I am going to touch someone’s arm, I always do so very lightly the first time and make sure to watch and see if they pull back from the touch or stiffen their shoulders. This tells you their comfort level with touch.

15. Be a Super Connector

You know those people who seem to know everyone? They’re known as super connectors because they’re the superheroes of the networking world. If they’re unable to help someone, they know a list of people who can, which makes them great friends to have.

While you may not have the expansive contact list of a super connector yet, you can add similar value to your network by spending a little bit of time each week connecting people who should know each other in two easy steps:

  • Keep up-to-date with what the people in your network need and what their strengths are.
  • Introduce people whose needs match another person’s strengths. For example, connect your acquaintance who wants to transition into a marketing career with a marketing professional you know.

This is a winning strategy for everyone involved because the people you connect benefit from knowing each other and both feel grateful toward you for bringing them together.

16. How to Make a Graceful Exit

Have you had a great conversation? Met some amazing people? …and now you are ready to go? Your last impression is just as important as your first impression. Here is a quick tutorial on how to make a graceful exit no matter who you are talking to:

Bonus Tip: Don’t forget to end on a great handshake. Not sure how to give a great one? Some science on the perfect handshake for you is right here!

17. Don’t Forget the Follow-Up

You could be the master of every networking event you attend, but if you don’t follow up, you will fail at truly building connections. People are busy and if you don’t connect with them often, you’ll be forgotten. Within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of meeting someone new, send a brief email reminding them who you are and what you talked about. Doing so establishes your connection with them and opens up a line of communication so you can send them messages in the future. After that, try to follow up once every quarter with acquaintances and at least once per month with people you’re trying to build a closer relationship with.

Here are some quick follow-up ideas:

  • Pass on relevant articles that add value and potentially spark a conversation.
  • Wish people a happy birthday.
  • Inform people about opportunities they may be interested in.

Bottom Line: Networking is a science that needs to be practiced. Take a few calculated social risks and you will be rewarded with some amazing new relationships!

Here’s a recent interview I conducted with networking expert Jordan Harbinger. Check it out for more great tips!


18. What to Wear to a Networking Event

It’s so hard to know what to wear while networking. First, make sure you wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll surely be on your feet a lot. Second, I always try to dress one degree more formal than the event calls for. You never know when you’ll meet a big VIP. You also want to think about colors and clothing tricks.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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