A shortcut to networking?

It’s top of every career must-do list: network, network, network. Experts are always telling us we need to do more of it, no matter what stage of our career we’re in. New relationships can lead to new clients, new partnerships and even new job opportunities.

Easier said than done, however. It can be difficult and intimidating to meet new people, especially if you aren’t an extrovert. Worse yet, at events that are supposed to help us make connections (like conferences), people tend to stay close to others they already know. It can be hard to break into a new group.

However, a growing trend is making it easier to connect. Speed networking services are taking off across Canada and the U.S. Based on the same principle as speed dating, it’s a chance to meet a lot of new people in a single setting. The short bursts of time are long enough to tell if there’s a real connection, and short enough to provide an out if there isn’t. Better yet, speed networking avoids the awkwardness and pressure of other networking events because participants know exactly what to expect and how to prepare.

“A lot of times people won’t step out of their comfort zone; they’re nervous or they’re afraid of rejection,” says Tina Yelle, founder of Fuchsia Factory Inc. “But with speed-networking, everyone knows why they’re there. It takes the guesswork out of networking — and takes the pressure off.”

The process is also a good way to meet people from a variety of fields and backgrounds. Yelle reports that people come for many reasons, not just to form new contacts and seek new clients. Some participants attend to promote a product, business or fundraiser. Others are looking for job opportunities, while some simply want to expand their professional circle — especially if they’re new in town.

How it works

What does a typical speed networking event look like? If you’re familiar with speed dating, this format will look familiar:

– When the session starts, everyone sits in pairs — often across from each other at long tables. The first person has a minute or two to introduce themselves and deliver their “elevator pitch” – a short speech about their work and their business. Then a whistle or bell sounds, and it’s the other person’s turn.

– Once both people have had their chance to speak, another whistle or bell sounds and one half of the group will move on to the next person.

– After the round is complete, many networking events offer a chance to chat — over cupcakes, in the case of Fuchsia Factory — so people can exchange information and arrange for follow-up meetings, like a phone call or coffee date.

“It’s like musical chairs,” says Yelle. “By the end of the evening, you will have met everyone in the room.”

What to look for

Not all speed networking services are alike — and you may need to ask a few questions to find one that suits your goals. Here’s what to look for:

Is there a target audience? Most speed-networking events cater to a wide range of ages, including older workers. However, some events cater to a specific crowd, like Gen Y professionals or entrepreneurs. Some events serve alcohol, which can change the tone of the evening.

How many participants are there? Usually the more participants there are, the less time you have to spend with each person. Look for sessions that have a reasonable number of people and that aren’t too long — 1.5-2 hours is often enough.

Is there a limit based on field or profession? Some services set caps so there’s plenty of variety and you’re not walking into a room full of people in your field. (For instance, Fuchsia Factory has a limit of two people from each profession at their events.)

Is there a membership fee or is it “pay-as-you-go”? Beware of the “regular crowd” you might find with membership-based services. The pay-as-you-go model encourages a different group each time and allows you to meet more people. You don’t have to be a regular attendee — in fact, it’s better to space out your sessions.

Where can you find events? Look for sessions through speed networking services as well as professional organizations, alumni groups and community events calendars.

Tips for success

How can you make the most of your speed networking experience? Here are some success strategies that Yelle suggestions:

Perfect your pitch. You know that “elevator pitch” experts suggest we have? (That concise, pithy speech that captures your skills, experience, business, etc.) Polish it up and practice it before you arrive. First impressions matter, so be prepared to be put on the spot.

Don’t panic if there’s room for improvement. “People gain confidence with experience,” says Yelle. “Speed networking can even help you become more effective at presenting yourself in other situations too.”

Get creative. Business cards are a must-have, but people are getting more creative in order to leave a lasting impression. Look for creative ways to make yourself memorable and demonstrate your expertise. Many people bring pamphlets and brochures, and some speed networking services even offer the chance to donate a prize or giveaway.

“One participant even brought in a presentation of her work on her iPhone,” says Yelle.

Dress the part. Leave the jeans at home — business casual rules at speed networking events. Yelle advises to dress as if you were meeting clients or potential employers (it might very well be the case!) You don’t have to don a full suit: dress pants, a blouse or dress shirt and appropriate grooming will do the trick.

Follow-up. Speed networking is just a place to start: it’s up to you to further the relationships you kindle. When you make a good connection, arrange to call them or meet — and follow through.

“You leave with a wealth of information,” Yelle says. “Be sure to use it. Make time for a chat or a cup of coffee to see if there’s something more. It’s all about establishing relationships — that’s where the referrals and connections come from.”

One word of caution: if you find it hard to hear or focus when there’s a lot of background noise, other networking opportunities would be a better fit. Understandably, speed-networking sessions can get loud with many people talking all at once.

Is speed networking worth a try? It’s not for everyone, but it’s a tool you might consider adding to your networking arsenal. It doesn’t require a huge time commitment — just an open mind and a willingness to pursue good connections. If you don’t find an event in your area, keep your eyes open: this is a growing trend.

Note to readers: www.thefuchsiafactory.com is currently pursuing another business model and only offers occasional speed networking events to benefit charity. Watch for other speed networking events in your area — we’re sure you’ll find these tips useful.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ P_Wei

The art of self-promotion
10 myths about job interviews
10 killer interview questions – and how to answer them
Are you a wimp at work?
Dealing with bullies in the workplace