Gatherings like industry association meetings, conferences, trade shows and networking events may feel like an awful lot of work when you’re already running a business. And some events may end up being a waste of your time, but face-to-face networking is a necessity if you want to grow.  

In fact, small business is all about networking – building relationships and, in turn, building opportunities. Those opportunities aren’t just referrals to new customers or recommendations for new business, either. Networking also gives you opportunities to better your business by sharing ideas and experiences with fellow business owners. That said, networking is an art, not a science, and there is an etiquette to it, one that is implicit and needs to be observed if you are to be successful.

Here are five do’s and five don’ts to keep in mind when you’re networking at any sort of event.


Smile and introduce yourself.

It sounds obvious, but there are many people that stand around—or worse, sit around–waiting for someone to approach them at networking events. Initiate conversations rather than waiting for someone else to start one. The goal is to meet as many people as you can, and to make those meetings memorable, by having a conversation with someone about their business, the industry, even their kids, long before asking for their business card. Remember that the whole goal of networking is to make a personal connection.  

Prepare conversation starters.

Being prepared to socialize will make you less anxious and help you come across more confident (and more charismatic). Don’t dive directly into questions about your business—or someone else’s. Instead, ask what someone thought of the presentation just given (or the panel discussion, reading, etc.). People generally like being asked their opinion, and will usually feel very easy about sharing. When you share your opinion, keep it positive or at least neutral—steer clear of being overly negative, because you don’t know how this person is or isn’t connected to the speaker. If you’re at a luncheon or dinner, you can ask about the food (for example: “Excuse me, do you know if the coffee is decaf?”). You can also ask a question, such as “Is that the iPhone 7? How do you like it?”

Prepare conversation closers.

A good way to wind down a personal conversation is to steer toward business. Questions such as “What attracted you to this industry?” “How many locations do you have?” or “I like your logo design, where did you get the idea for it?” When you feel it’s time to move on, make sure to close out the conversation properly, don’t just leave. Exchange business cards or Linkedin profiles and say something like “Great meeting you. You’ve got an interesting business, maybe I’ll see you next month.”

Maintain the 80/20 Rule.

When you’re engaged in networking conversations you never want to dominate. The tried-and-true rule is to listen 80 percent of the time, ask questions 10 percent and share your own opinion 10 percent. People are often most interested in hearing what they have to say and once they get a chance to do that, are more likely to focus and really hear what you have to say.  

Be authentic.

It’s best to speak honestly and truthfully about your work, your aspirations, what you want from your current job and the profession generally. Before you come to an event make sure that information about you online and across social media is up-to-date and accurate, including photos. Part of being authentic is making sure public information about you is current and in-sync, and that includes your photos, resume and recommendations.


Stand around looking at your phone.

Keep your phone in your pocket. Just because a side conversation started or someone with whom you were speaking has been interrupted doesn’t mean it’s time for you to start checking your email or your Instagram feed. First, it’s unprofessional and second, it shows disinterest and a lack of maturity. Instead, do the hard work of networking –walk over to another group or person, take a peek at their nametag, introduce yourself and ask a question (See the 80/20 rule.)

Start a conversation with your business card.

Although you should come to business functions and networking events with high-quality, well-designed business cards (yes, those still matter), there is a time and place for the card exchange. Invest some time, first, in actually making a connection. After all, networking is about much more than expanding your business card collection.

Have a meaningful conversation with the other person, asking questions about their interests, business and life outside of work (if that feels appropriate). Debra Fine, the author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk” suggests listening closely to what’s being said in order to pull out bits of information that will help you ask questions and keep the conversation going. Once you’ve built a rapport, ask for the other person’s business card and offer yours.

Be too casual with language.

The business world has become more casual about language, but you should not use language that’s unprofessional or contains expletives. Four-letter words should be reserved for conversations with those you know well (or know well enough to know they won’t be offended).  Always err on the side of propriety.

Sit when being introduced.

Always stand when introduced, look the person in the eye and shake their hand. Sitting down shows a lack of respect for the other person and makes it seem as if you’re holding court, rather than networking like everyone else.

Be a passive listener.

A passive listener listens but isn’t reacting to what’s being said, is often distracted and fidgety, and doesn’t even looking at the speaker. When you are an active listener, however, you are giving the speaker your full attention by making eye contact, leaning toward them, saying yes or “mmm hmmm” to show understanding and empathy and encourage them to continue.

Networking doesn’t mean shoving your product or value proposition down a bystander’s throat. The goal is to make personal connections to benefit yourself and fellow business owners so make sure you’re playing by the rules at your next networking event.