How to Network at a Holiday Party

Holiday parties are great! Whether it’s your company party, your client’s party, or a party with family and friends, it’s a chance to have fun and get into the holiday spirit. Of course, there are also some great networking opportunities to be had. Especially if you’re a financial planner or advisor looking to help people get a fresh start for next year.

I spoke to a group at a firm yesterday about networking. The whole holiday party thing came up. One woman in particular struggled with the concept of looking at a holiday party as a chance to network. She felt that nobody would want to talk about work and that a holiday party was simply a place to socialize and celebrate. Hey, why not have it all?  No reason you can’t celebrate and network. What a great way to kick off the New Year while developing existing relationships and making new ones?

To her point, networking may be a bit different from the usual chamber meeting or networking events. Here are some quick tips on how to “work the room” while socializing and celebrating.

Keep it light!
Yes, it should be light fare. Probably not the best time to get into heavy conversations about mergers, long term care, annuities, the economy, or anything else pressing. It is a time to get to know people and to have fun conversations about the good things happening both in and out of work. Keep it light, fun, and positive.

Know who will be at the party.
I teach a public speaking class at Rutgers University and finals are coming up. One of my students just emailed me requesting to take her final exam during the day (rather than that night). She’s an intern with an interest in media and was invited to a party at NBC where producers, publicists, and some celebrities will be attending. Upon learning about the invitees, she knew she had to prepare and be there. It’s important to learn about the people that may attend the party. Who do you need to meet? Who should you reconnect with? Who do they need to meet? How can you help one another? The more you know the better you can prepare.

Have your tools of the trade.
Leave the tool belt at home. Best to have business cards, a couple of throw away pens, index cards (so you can jot things down), your Blackberry, Treo, Smart Phone, or whatever (just don’t use it when speaking with others face to face), maybe some breath mints, a name tag (worn on the right if possible so it’s in eyeshot upon shaking hands), and some holiday cheer!

Initiate conversations.
It’s always a great thing if you can initiative a conversation rather than waiting for someone to come over and meet you. Especially when there’s so much holiday cheer so spread the word! I think when you initiate a face to face conversation with someone you don’t already know, you can set a nice tone while showcasing your confidence and smarts. (I’m confident of that!) Also, if you can help make someone who’s standing alone feel more comfortable, you’re both ahead of the game.

Have questions to ask others – especially about big plans for the coming year.
So what type of work do you do? Where do you work? Do you like what you do? What kind of year did you have in your business? What’s in store for next year? Any big plans for the holidays? Who else do you know here? From a business standpoint, is there anyone here I can introduce you to?  How can I help you in your business? (Only if you like them and can truly help.) Of course, any questions about current events and light social banter are always welcomed.

Ask to be introduced.
In knowing who might be at the party, you can always ask for an introduction. Perhaps a good business contact, someone that has insight about a college you’re researching for your kid, or someone who targets the same markets that you do. I find the best way to ask for an introduction is to offer one – if you can. Or simply let the person with whom you’re speaking know what type of people (industry, profession, whatever) you’re ultimately looking to connect with. Of course, never disrespect or downplay the conversation you’re currently in.

Be polite in terminating conversations.
In a business networking setting, I generally don’t speak with people longer than about 8 minutes (without ever looking at my watch!). But at a holiday party, I may be a bit more relaxed about timeframes as conversations typically have more of a social flair – which is of course fine. When you want to end a conversation say something like, “It was great getting the chance to chat and I look forward to seeing you later (or again soon).”

The only thing you are selling is you.
I was at a holiday party last year and there was a guy that was there for the sole purpose of generating venture capital for a product he was developing. He wasn’t looking to establish a rapport or build a relationship. He was simply there to see if anyone was interested in a “business opportunity”. I was speaking with him for about two minutes before he hit me with a pitch – and an awkward good bye. So remember, marketing collateral, PowerPoint presentations, and sales pitches are a big no-no. There should be no fact finders or mention of products and services. The only thing you should be there to sell is you.

Have a specific objective.
What’s on your mind and how can a contact that you make be a resource?  It could be a business objective or perhaps a personal one. I’m always looking for advice, insight, and recommendations on my marketplace, networking organizations, books, articles, and newsletters. I’m also happy to talk about personal interests like sports and any books that might be out there that I should know about. Of course, the more interesting things I can learn about the people I meet the better.

Have your elevator pitch handy.
An elevator pitch (it should really be a positioning statement) is something you should always have top of mind – even at a holiday party. When someone asks you what you do be specific and clear. If you can have a prepared (not rehearsed) statement about what you do, whom you help, what you know, and what you’re after, you might meet someone that can help you. If you’re not prepared with such a statement, you may never know.

Be positive!
Look to meet with those that aren’t complaining about the economy. Complaining about politics. Complaining about tough times. Complaining about their work. Complaining about how things need to get better. Complaining about health care reform.  (Hey, I don’t mean to complain.) I do realize that not all is good in the world but who wants to hang out at a holiday party with a bunch of whiners? Answer – a bunch of whiners. It’s always a great thing to chat it up with professionals that love what they do and want to meet others that love what they do. I particularly enjoy meeting people that have big plans for the New Year – starting a new business, expanding into a different marketplace, planning a big vacation, buying a new car, joining a gym, running a marathon. When people are excited and passionate about what they want to do, I get excited and passionate about talking to them. I also get that much more excited about the things I’m doing. Excitement is contagious – or at least it is when you’re not complaining. Meeting great people is always much more productive and fun than hanging out with whiners.

Offer help.
You won’t hit it off with everyone at a networking meeting or holiday party.  But when you do it’s always great to offer help. After learning about what someone does for work and what their initiatives are for the New Year simply offer to be a resource.  That’s what networking is all about! By offering to be of help to others they may return the offer right back. That’s how it works!

Plan to follow up.
Whenever you meet someone at an event, this is just the start of what will hopefully be a long lasting relationship. This is where handwritten “nice to meet you” cards, invitations to LinkedIn, and future meetings come in handy. Certainly, send an email or make a phone call to learn more about their business (as in the other person) and see how you can help one another. If you made a promise to connect someone to someone else, send an article, or provide further information, make sure you live up to your word over the next 24 or 48 hours.

Have fun!
Ever meet someone at an event that simply doesn’t want to be there? Maybe they needed to go because their firm made it mandatory? Hey, it’s a party! If you can’t have fun at a party, where can you have fun? If nothing else, make it a point of having fun. Others may look to talk to you and be part of the action. It’s party time!

Here’s the bottom line – networking at any event is about farming not hunting. The big payoff from networking doesn’t happen overnight. It does take time and work.  Remember, it’s net-work! Prepare your list, check it twice, and have fun networking at your upcoming holiday parties and events. Just avoid the eggnog and the venture capital guy!

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