NetworkingNetworking — it can be a dirty word for entrepreneurs and other professionals alike. However, doing it successfully can really help you to succeed.

I am emceeing the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s event “The Exchange” on April 2, 2014.  It’s the biggest networking event in the Chicagoland area, plus it features great keynotes from the likes of Shark Tank’s Daymond John and technology tips from Microsoft.

So, gearing up for an event like that, I thought that I’d help you make the preparation and set the intention to make the most of your next networking opportunity.

And please join us at The Exchange too — you can register here.

Have a Goal. When you go to the event, do you even know what you want to get out of it? Most entrepreneurs that I have spoken to have never thought about creating goals for networking. If you don’t have a goal, why are you going?

Think about whether you want to try to meet new people or re-connect with existing connections. Who is your ideal connection at the event? How many solid takeaways will make the event a good use of your time? Set your intentions for the event beforehand to make sure it’s even worth attending.

Research in Advance. Many events these days publish online lists of the participants and the companies they work for. Do your homework beforehand to figure out the best potential connections, and make a list of your top 6-10 whom you want to meet  — and make sure to meet at least 2-3 of those.

This is particularly helpful for dinner events, since you can decide with whom to sit. Also, find out what you have in common with attendees by checking out their profiles on LinkedIn and other social forums or reading up on them online. Use the common ground that you discover as icebreakers to establish a connection.

Practice Makes Perfect. When someone asks what you do, be able to communicate it clearly and concisely — and to describe the value that you provide to your clients and customers. Learn how to deliver your pitch with confidence and enthusiasm — first impressions matter, and they happen very quickly.

Also, if someone asks how they can be helpful, be prepared to reply, clearly and concisely, with one good suggestion, such as a particular type of referral. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to get exactly what you want.

Be Reasonable. You’re meeting most of these people for the first time, and it’s important to adapt yourself to this environment. Don’t ask for favors that overstep the level of the relationship.

Also, focus on making fewer — but higher quality — connections, rather than trying to meet everyone in the room. A few really high-quality, strong connections will pay off at a much higher rate than a bunch of casual interactions.

Follow Through. Remember that the networking event is just the first step in a long process. If you meet someone who could be a customer, referral partner, or other asset, take time to nurture the relationship. Send them an article that is helpful to their business. Provide an introduction. Ask them to coffee. Continue the dialogue, as strong relationships aren’t built in a day.

After all — if you’re not going to spend the time required to follow up on your networking efforts, then why waste your time attending the event in the first place?

If you take the time, you can make the most of your networking.  I hope to network with you at The Exchange.