I'm seated inches away from another "business professional."
Over the next five minutes, I'm expected to orchestrate a cohesive connection or idea for collaboration. Meanwhile, there's a group organizer walking around making sure that I'm connecting with someone—no pressure!—and if not, they'll step in and pitch a talking point to get us started. It’s a moderated play date for adults, the pace kept humming by a ringing bell at the five-minute mark.
My first speed-networking experience was daunting to say the least. When I enter a small conference room at the back of a Midtown Manhattan restaurant, two rings of chairs (an outer circle of six facing an inner circle of six) sit empty. Two guys dressed in ill-fitting suits walk in and take a plate of nachos. I choose the bar over small-talk, buy a glass of sangria, and sit down to mentally prepare myself. A few jerky arm movements in my direction and the moderator cuts into my thoughts and has my attention. "Hello! Come and get a name tag!"
I meet the stares of the suited men (while they very obviously judge my backpack and flats) and slip over to the name-tag table. Ms. Moderator shares the stats and history of the hosting organization, and I quickly snag a seat inside the networking room. And I’m not alone—a woman clutching an empty wine glass makes her wobbly way to a seat across the room. I breathe a sigh of relief.
There is no better way to put your elevator pitch to the test than to throw yourself into a speed-networking event. Business classes and real-life experiences have taught you that first impressions are important. But I’m here to tell you that amplified five-minute, one-on-one first impressions are even more important, and most definitely more awkward.
My first conversation was with a cordial woman in the hotel business. Believe it or not, we made a connection. And then I made another one with the forensic accountant I met next. Connection after connection followed, and I realized the benefit of being a journalist in this environment.
My spirits had lifted and my stack of business cards had grown. The highlight of the night: an elderly man passing out business cards made from cookies, sprinkles and all. Speed-networking wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I had anticipated.
Well, it wasn't intimidating until I tried to leave without talking to the wine-glass woman I had miraculously managed to avoid the entire night.
I’m not an introvert and I enjoy meeting new people. But this particular potential connection had been on her phone the entire night downing glasses of wine between conversations. Needless to say, if you want to make a bad impression, that's the way to do it.
I make it a foot out the door before she grabs me. Literally, takes my arm and slurs an apology for not getting to talk to me. Then she launches into a canned introduction about her job in politics and city planning and how she is so happy to make a connection with me. A few days later I get an email from her asking me to join her organization for a couple hundred dollars a month.
The beauty of a speed-networking event is that you don’t have to follow up with everyone you meet. The most important part of the experience is the follow-ups. Don’t leave your new connections hanging. Pick and choose the people you’d like to know better professionally and send them an email. Nothing too intense, just a quick "it was nice to meet you, I’d like to know more about your endeavors" kind of thing. My two biggest tips for networking newbies: Don’t leave your business cards at home and perfect your handshake.
Oh, and stick to one drink.
[Image: Flickr user John Tornow]