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Tips for getting the most out of networking events

Photo by Reyhana Heatherington

I was recently invited to attend a conference hosted by an industry association that invited students to network with representatives from various member companies, meet students with similar interests, and perhaps learn a thing or two about the industry itself.

Despite my aversion to social interactions with absolute strangers, it turned out to be a very enriching opportunity. The experience gave me the chance to develop some of the basic networking skills essential in today’s job market, and allowed me to ponder about the art of networking and the value for students to attend conferences and networking events.

We keep being told to network, to shake hands, and to “make connections,” but what is the significance of attending such events? How do you get the most out of an opportunity when it is apparently knocking at the door?

Networking actually matters

No matter what industry you’re trying to break into, it’s safe to say that knowing someone helps. You never know whose card might end up in your wallet. It could be a recruiter, a potential mentor, or even a chief executive officer (CEO). While the skills and knowledge you acquire through academics will allow you to succeed in any position, contacts are ultimately what will get you the interview to nail down an actual job. Your hard work and vast knowledge will be lost unless you can get through the company’s front door.

When approaching company booths, don’t start with “Do you have any job opportunities?”

This is something you learn the hard way. To learn this lesson, it took me about a day of really unsympathetic answers. My favourite will eternally be the dry, unelaborated, “Yes, we do.” That is awkwardness you don’t recover from. The best way to get started? Introduce yourself, shake hands, and ask what the company does. Developing a conversation from that point is a breeze.

Don’t forget the FORD technique to keep the small talk going. When approaching someone you want to connect with, make an effort to ask them about their family, occupation, recreation, and dreams. Think of a couple questions for each category, keep them in mind, and pull them out when the conversation drags.

Don’t expect the 101

Although the conference I attended offered some insightful talks and panel discussions, don’t expect talks at conferences or networking events to compare to a typical 80-minute lecture. Yes, they spark debate. Yes, you’ll learn something new. But no, you’re not going to be taught an introduction to fission in the next 30 minutes. The focus of talks is most likely to open up discussions about perspectives regarding the industry these companies work in, not offer an introduction to something they expect you to already understand.

Keep an open mind

While you may have a certain company in mind or a particular business leader you’d like to impress, you never know what opportunities might lie where you least expect. Don’t hesitate to discover new groups, charities, or organizations and find out what kind of work they do and the opportunities they can offer students. You might just discover a new passion, or find an unexpected gateway to the career of your dreams.

Attend the cocktail parties, dinners, or pub nights

Not only is free food something you never turn down, but these are the events where you will network most comfortably. Your target audience is most likely relaxed, enjoying a drink, and chatting everyone up. There’s nothing like a conference booth to make everyone tense and nervous. Without conference tables between you, it’s much easier to forge connections and grow your network through relaxed, enjoyable, social interaction.

Open bar doesn’t mean you should drink until you pass out

While some events may offer an open bar, don’t treat it like the booze cabinet in a frat house. Conferences should be considered professional scenarios where it is best to keep a clear mind. There is nothing worse than waking up the next morning after what you thought was a student pub night, only to be reminded that you (unsuccessfully) hit on the CEO of the firm you were hoping to score an internship with.