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Branch out! How to make networking work

A couple of weeks ago, a few Walker Sands interns and I attended a networking event for Chicago public relations interns. Interestingly, for a room of up-and-coming PR pros – a group supposedly known for its gift of networking -- there wasn’t a lot of meeting or greeting at the event.  Maybe it was an off-night for the group or the fact that for many it was their first industry event but, all in all, attendees seemed to stick with the group they arrived with.

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However, I would by no means say my first PR networking event was flop -- I learned some valuable lessons. Here are the five networking takeaways I got from the event:

Research the event beforehand – Research to see who is going to be there, how many people will be there, what companies will be there, dress code, etc. – even check out the food and drink situation. This way, you won’t be caught off guard with anything, and you’ll know ahead of time who you may want to meet while you’re there, which goes well with my next takeaway…

Go to every networking event with a goal – Whether that goal is meeting five new people or getting an introduction to a specific person, arrive to this type of event with a goal. Think of this goal as a “to-do list” for the networking event. Having a clear goal in mind allows you to prepare and organize your night accordingly and should guarantee you a much more productive couple of hours.

 Have your “elevator pitch” ready – Based on your audience, know exactly what you are going to say about yourself and/or your company. Again, this is why researching the guest list is important. You don’t want to be caught off guard when someone asks “And what do you do?” Rather, you want to be able to answer this question quickly and with confidence.

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Prepare yourself with a few ice breakers and/or questions – These events can be awkward, and they can be unbearable if you don’t have anything to say. Set out to the event with a set of open-ended questions to ask other attendees. People love to talk about themselves, so keep the spotlight on them. You could end up learning a lot about an important person or an interesting company.

Branch out – I think this is the most important lesson that my fellow Chicago PR interns and I can take away from this list. It’s easy to arrive with a group and stick to that group – it’s called staying in your comfort zone. However, these events -- and these internships in general – are about stepping out of that comfort zone and growing from it. It’s hard to meet anyone new when you surrounded by a group of people. Make yourself available to mingle with other attendees, and this networking thing will suddenly become a lot simpler.

A final thought: it’s important to remember that, just like anything else, networking takes practice -- the more networking events you attend, the better you get at making those new connections and the easier these events become.