1. Keep meetings brief
Try to keep meetings with new people at 30 minutes to an hour. It is much better to want to schedule follow up conversations than to run out of good conversation topics. At the end of your coffee, if you want to keep talking, that is a great sign that this person is worth having in your network because you have things in common and bring value to one another in conversation.
No matter how you hit it off, make sure you send a polite and thoughtful follow up to everyone you meet. This email will reinforce your gratefulness for their time and create a record if you are searching for their contact in the future. However, focus your time on building deeper relationships with the people who you really connect with and want to keep talking to. Those are the people you should be scheduling follow ups with, or inviting to join you for other events.
2. Ask questions first
There are many instances in which you may know nothing about a person, particularly at an industry happy hour or conference. Start by asking questions first. If you don’t want to ask what someone does for a living and talking about the weather feels a bit stale, instead try a question like “So, what’s your side hustle?” or “I had a crazy time getting here. What’s your biggest transportation nightmare?” Either option will be a bit friendlier and start the conversation centered on the person you are chatting with. In addition, you will know much more about your new connection by the time they ask what you do, and can answer how you can help them instead of a rehearsed pitch.
3. Know what’s happening in your industry
The job title or seniority of a match matters far less to me than what he or she brings to the conversation. I am always super open to coffee with someone who is just getting started or switching careers, and who is keeping up with industry blogs, following new trends, and excited to discuss what’s happening.
If you are heading to a coffee or an event, try to read at least one interesting piece of news before you go. Get to know the key players in your industry and understand what’s happening by subscribing to daily industry newsletter or following some leaders on Twitter. Then be prepared to discuss your own perspective, as well as learning from the person you are meeting about their views on what’s new.
4. Ask for business cards, rather than giving them out
Especially when meeting people at events, it may be tempting to hand out a stack of business cards and evaluate success based on how many you have left. However, it’s likely that your business card will end up in a pile of untouched cardboard, and eventually end up in the trash. Instead, be proactive in asking for a business card if you don’t already know how to reach your contact after the conversation. When you get a minute, jot down a note on the back of the card to remember what you chatted about, or something specific such as “red hat” that will help you recall your talk.
The next day, follow up with a personal message that adds value. For example, if the conversation was centered on new marketing strategies, send an interesting article to further the dialogue. If the person mentioned they are hiring a videographer, send them the website of a videographer friend and ask if your new connection would like an introduction. Take the pressure off your connection to follow up by asking for business cards rather than giving them out, and be sure to add value in your follow up.
5. Make connections between your network
If you don’t have an immediate way to collaborate with or hire someone you meet, try to make an introduction instead. For example, if you hear a friend is looking for a leadership coach to run workshops on site for their company, reach out to a few people in your network to see if they are interested. If you met two people working on similar projects, see if they’d like an intro to compare notes. Give without any expectation in return, and these connections will remember you when you do have a request or hope for an intro down the line.