When to exchange the business card at networking events? It is a common question I often get. Let me start with a little anecdote that happened about seven years ago:
In one of my first weeks in my new role as business development manager, my manager asked me to attend a networking event at the Sydney Opera House on his behalf. He had a family to look after and entrusted I would do well in his place. There were several companies on his wish list that he wanted to do business with, so it was my task to identify the representatives of those companies and get their business cards to follow up. The pressure was on.
I got there early to not miss any opportunity to meet those high-level people and get their business cards. I was standing in line to enter the venue, with my formal invitation and ID in one hand, and a stack of cards in my other. I had more cards in all my jacket pockets just in case. Running out of cards is a rookie mistake, I had already learned.
I started making small talk with the people in the line, in the hopes they were working for the companies that my manager wanted as clients. When I was about one minute in the conversation, the line started to move, and people were admitted to the room. I wanted to make the most out of this opportunity, so I began to hand out my business card to the people I talked with, and also to the people behind them, just in case.
With that pushy approach, I probably blew more opportunities at that event than I made. People accepted my cards, but more out of politeness than out of interest. It showed off that I was a business development manager in dire need for a sale, rather than an interesting conversationalist whom they would want to keep in touch with. Their disinterest also showed by the fact they weren’t returning the gesture by handing their card to me.
The number one thing I learned from this experience is that you cannot hand over a card before the conversation reaches the stage of conversational interest. Spreading cards out of the blue is like a flyer-promoter in a shopping mall: only a few people are interested, and it only works if the flyer gives a deep discount on a product you were already interested in. Your business card does not have discount codes, and the ‘product’ is embedded in your conversational skills. If the conversation has not progressed beyond polite small-talk, handing a business card is superfluous and a tad bit awkward: too much, too soon.
So when is it the right time to hand over your business card?
There is not a set rule when to give your business card at networking events, but you want the other person to think: ‘this is a great person to stay in touch with, I will keep him in mind’.
Some cultures, like the Japanese, even have a ritual around the card exchange. They give the card with two hands, and the receiver accepts it with two hands, looking at the card on both sides, and highlighting the achievements of the person and company. For example:
‘I see you are the managing director and also hold a Master of Science degree’ or ‘I learn the company also has offices in Tokyo, London and New York’
It is a ritual to acknowledge that the card receiver well regards the card giver. If it were a formal meeting with multiple people from the same company, the receiver should place the cards on the table in the same hierarchy as in the organisation. The director at the top of the ledger, the manager below, the coordinator below that, etc.
In western culture, the card also does the talking to some extent, but the card giver would not expect such an explicit dance around status, hierarchy and power – that would feel awkward and maybe even the need for the card-giver to make some humbling comments in an effort to neutralise the gap. The British are perhaps the masters in playing the perceived underdog: the higher-up someone is, the more he downplays his status. The CEO of the company may say in a perceived casual tone: ‘oh I just work there’ expecting you to find out his actual rank in between the lines of the conversation.
The good news is that the quality of the conversation is at least as important as the exact title on the card, which is helpful for anyone not (yet) in senior management roles: having a great conversation will enable you to follow-up, not the title.
So… back to the question… when to exchange cards?
For when to exchange the business card at a networking event, I’d say as soon as it is socially acceptable and there is some reason to follow-up. After all, you want the other person to appreciate a follow up with you, even if it’s only a connection on Linked-In and not (yet) a business deal. If there is some sort of conversational interest, you can safely assume the other person will appreciate the card and return the gesture.
Alternatively, handing the card can serve as a polite ending point of a conversation so that you can move on at the event. Simply say something like:
‘It was great talking with you. Here is my business card. Please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn, or I can connect with you.’
In that latter part of the sentence ‘or I can connect with you’ lies the implicit suggestion for the other person to give you their business card as well. If they don’t pick up on that suggestion, it is okay to ask for theirs (if you are keen to have it), provided it doesn’t come across as pushy. Are you wondering when or how to follow-up once you have exchanged business cards at the networking event? Stay tuned for future blogs or sign up to my free email course.
Bonus tip about the title on your business card:
For most employees of a business, the design of the card and your title is decided upon for you. If you are running your own business though and don’t have a significant number of staff, I would refrain from calling yourself ‘CEO’ or ‘Founder’ or ‘Managing Director’ or a similar high-up business title.
Sure, it sounds fancy to be the CEO, but if it’s a one-person company you are also the marketing coordinator, salary administrator, receptionist and sales team and your ‘board meetings’ are basically conversations you have with yourself whilst under the shower. An over-stated title will become apparent once the conversation progresses to doing business. After all, a real managing director will delegate part of the business deal to mid-level management, finance, product owners and other team members. The other party meets, calls or emails with these people along the process; if your business is a one-man-band doing it all yourself that is totally okay, but if you inflate your status with an overly-flattering title, it will deflate again once people start doing business with you and that is not a flattering feeling.
Instead, give yourself a title based on what you actually do, and your business is about. For example: ‘Digital Marketing Freelancer’ or ‘Efficiency Coach’ or ‘Wealth Consultant’. I christened my title to be ‘Speaker & Trainer’ because that is what I do at The Networking Experience and want to be remembered for. Think of just that for your title: What do you want people to remember you for?