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The worst networking event I ever went to had everything good going for it. The food was endless and the bar was open. It was at a local hotspot that was set up in a way that was warm and inviting. Plus, it wasn’t stuffy. There were so many people there that starting conversations with others would have been easy. 

What made it bad was me. I was the problem. I found myself feeling awkward and nervous to be there alone. So I stood in the corner, pretended to be busy on my phone, and eventually left empty handed. I hadn’t made one connection or exchanged one of the 500 business cards I had brought to the event.

I never made that mistake again. From then on, I went to networking events with strict guidelines for myself so that I wouldn’t waste my time and I would leave with what I came there for: new relationships and insight on the industry or topic. The more events I went to, the more I realized that if I came prepared, the less time I had to stay. Now, I go for only 25 minutes, and leave with more positive experiences and connections then I did when I’d linger for hours. Here’s how. 

1. Stand in the middle

It can feel inline with your comfort zone to head to the corners of the event and wait there to figure out what to do next — especially when you’re at a networking meetup where you don’t know anyone else, and it seems like everyone else came with a group of people. But at events, people tend to talk to other people who are visible, which means nearby and in front of them. Stand in the middle of the room and you will be more likely to be introduced into conversation or find others to start talking with.

Set a goal before you walk in the room for how many people you want to meet. That way, you’ll force yourself out of lurking in the corner, playing on your phone, and wasting time trying to get a word in.

2. Find someone to compliment

When you’re looking for people at the event to connect with, but don’t see any familiar faces or people making eye contact, find someone nearby to compliment. A compliment is an easy way to make fast connections and a great way to kick  off a conversation.

The longer you float around the room without saying hi, the longer you’re at the event without fulfilling your goal, which is to meet new people and learn new things.

3. Know what you’ll ask

Making constant conversation with people can feel tricky and exhausting. Come to the event with a list of ten questions you could ask anyone there to help extend the chat and get to know them on a quality level.

You can ask what challenges they are facing in their industry, what part of their job they enjoy the most, or about any hobbies or travel plans they might have. Neutral topics can help the conversation flow easily, with meaning and purpose. You’ll notice you say “umm” much less when you have a game plan of questions to ask.

4. Have a short elevator pitch

A big time waster at networking events is the struggle to answer a question you’ll get asked frequently: “What do you do?” If you don’t have a short and polished answer to the question, you’ll struggle finding the right words, descriptions, and story to use. Come prepared to answer  this question in under 15 seconds, and have a quick summary of your job responsibilities, interesting projects, and perhaps a personal fun fact to make you memorable. 

Having a concise answer encourages them to ask questions on what they want to know more about. That way, the connection is built around how they can potentially connect with you in the future — and opportunities they might be able to offer you. When elevator pitches sound like rambling run-on sentences, the person listening might get fatigued by listening and not have much to follow-up with.

5. Ace the follow-up game

Set a limit ahead of time for how long you want conversations to last. That way, you won’t find yourself sucked into chatting with just one person for the duration of the entire event. Try to keep conversations under five minutes, with the purpose of learning just enough about a person so that you can follow-up with them in a genuine and powerful way. 

Once the conversation climbs to a natural pause, let the other person know it was great meeting them and that you are going to go keep exploring the event (or going to refill your drink, use the restroom, walk around for a bit, etc.), and ask what the best way to contact them would be. After you have their email, phone number, or social profile, jot a quick note in your phone (a sentence or two) about what the conversation to make them remember you in your follow-up email. 

Also, have a purpose. If they mentioned in your conversation giving you a tour of the office or sending you future events their company is hosting, mention that in the communication. 

Networking events are for making connections. Keep your conversations short but filled with purpose, to help make the relationships into something meaningful, and hopefully, a long-lasting connection. 

Originally published on Business Insider.

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