It's that time of year again! Time for the annual company holiday party and all those other get-togethers that come with the holiday season. Maribeth Kuzmeski says that this year, in addition to the trays of tempting hor d'oeuvres, the delightful holiday décor, and the colleague who's had a few too many (there's one at every party!), you should remember that these seasonal social events are also a great place for networking. And she stresses that whether the thought of all that small talk and business card swapping makes you merry or nauseous, this is the year you should focus less on the buffet line and more on maximizing these events to make connections that will benefit you well into the New Year.

 

"The holidays are here, and that means plenty of opportunities to meet new and interesting people," says Kuzmeski, author of The Connectors: How the World's Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life (Wiley, September 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-48818-8, $22.95). "There's no other time of the year when you'll have so many events to attend which also translate to more opportunities to network! But whether you're the life of the party or full of social anxiety when it comes to holiday events, it's important that you go into them armed and ready to make the most of your time with every holiday well-wisher you encounter."

 

Creating strong relationships, business and otherwise, is the focus of Kuzmeski's latest book. It's packed full of tools and techniques aimed at helping readers develop better, more profitable connections – tools and techniques proven effective by some of the world's most successful professionals. And with all the parties and events that come with the holiday season, this time of year is full of perfect opportunities for making great connections that can be beneficial to you both personally and professionally.

Read on for four easy tips for maximizing your interactions at holiday parties this year:

Have a plan of action before you go. Social events can be nerve-wracking, especially during the holiday season when there are so many to attend and during which everyone –  from your company's CEO to your top client's boss –  seem to come out of the woodwork. Instead of dreading the season's big events, formulate a plan of action ahead of time that will help you make the most of them. Doing so will ensure that you make all the right connections, and it will help to alleviate any pre-party social anxiety you may have.

"First, think about which contacts are the most important to you, and make a point to speak to each of them during the event (instead of hiding behind the dessert bar the entire night!)," says Kuzmeski. "Find out who will be attending the event. Do some research online or on social networking sites like LinkedIn to learn about attendees. You may even want to consider asking the host for a guest list. Pick five people with whom you definitely want to speak while you are there, and don't avoid the big names. Make sure you challenge yourself by making an effort to connect with at least one top dog, such as your boss's boss or a client company's CEO."

Let them do the talking (You ask the questions!). There's nothing worse than coming away from a great networking opportunity realizing that you didn't capitalize on the situation. As you work the crowds this holiday season, be sure to have more in your arsenal than small talk. Kuzmeski suggests coming up with a list of questions to use on your fellow holiday party guests. Here are a few great ice breakers to get the ball rolling:

·        Where will you be spending the holidays?

·        Where did you grow up?

·        Do you still have family there?

·        How are your kids?

·        What are they up to this holiday season?

·        What do you think about...? (Complete this question with something from current events, your town or city's local news, or a recent event in your industry. Remember, it is always a good idea to avoid topics that can lead to contentious conversations such as religion, politics, etc.)

Once the conversation is flowing freely, then you can move on to more in-depth business questions:

·        What's the best thing that has happened to your business this year?

·        What's one thing you've done that has really changed your career?

·        What will you never do again in business?

·        What's your biggest challenge?

·        What's makes a good client for you?

·        What do you find is the most effective way to keep a client happy?

"After they answer you, it's always a good idea to follow up with a secondary question that encourages them to tell you more," Kuzmeski adds. "The more they talk and you listen, the more they will like you because you are showing genuine interest in them. Pretty soon, they will be asking you questions, and a valuable business connection will have been made!"

Be prepared to pitch yourself in 15 seconds. It's no doubt that you have a lot of qualifications and experience. So much that you could probably go on for hours about yourself. But the hard reality is that no one (except for your mom!) wants to hear that much about your accomplishments. Kuzmeski says that when you're meeting new people at this season's holiday parties, you should resist the urge to give them a ten-minute introduction about yourself. Instead, prepare a short, fifteen-second elevator pitch that hits on your career high points and top skills. Think about what's unique about what you have done and what will stand out in a room full of people who are also talking about themselves. Be sure that whomever you speak with will still remember you at the end of the night.

"The key to an effective pitch is keeping it short while still including your biggest wins," Kuzmeski explains. "For example, I've had great success with the following pitch about myself: 'Hi! My name is Maribeth Kuzmeski. I own a marketing consulting firm, Red Zone Marketing, which employs six people who are all focused on helping companies find more business. I've worked with an NBA basketball team, with US Senators, financial advisors, and mutual fund companies. I've even closed a sale while upside down in an aerobatic biplane at 7,000 feet above ground.' I find that it is hard for most people to walk away without asking me about that last part or which NBA team or US Senators I've worked with. Be creative and think about how you can frame your accomplishments in a way that gets other guests' attention."

The party may end, but your connection shouldn't. It's the busiest time of the year, and if your calendar is packed with parties and events, then it can be hard to keep track of all the connections you make. Following an event, be proactive. Spend 10 minutes cementing your connections by creating a database that allows you to keep track of all the connections you've made. Include reminders to yourself of interesting or remarkable things that people said or that you learned so that you won't forget them and can refer back to them in later conversations. And be sure to use social media to keep in touch.

"Use LinkedIn or other social networking tools to invite your new contacts to connect with you," Kuzmeski says. "Share something the person said to you at the event that you really enjoyed or remind them of a connection point you made (For example, if you discovered you both like the same sports team, you might say, 'Let's hope the So-and-Sos get a win this weekend!'), and if you can, give them a referral. Create a course of action that will help you further connect with these important individuals. Soon, they will be seeking you out because you've piqued their interest with the impression you have made!"

"When you think about it, the holidays are all about connecting," Kuzmeski concludes. "It's the time of year when many of us make an effort to re-connect with our families and loved ones and take the time to share more of ourselves with those around us. So don't throw out those holiday party invitations this year. RSVP with a 'Yes!' and resolve that you won't leave any event without having a made a couple of great new connections. Put yourself out there, make the first move, and be yourself. It just may be the best gift you give yourself this year." 

 

About the author:
Maribeth Kuzmeski is the founder of Red Zone Marketing, LLC, which consults to Fortune 500 firms on strategic marketing planning and business growth. Maribeth has personally consulted with some of the world's most successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, and professionals. An internationally recognized speaker, she shares the tactics that businesspeople use today to create more sustainable business relationships, sales, and marketing successes.

Maribeth is the author of four books, including The Connectors: How the World's Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life. She has frequently appeared on TV and radio, and has written articles on marketing strategies for hundreds of publications including BusinessWeek and Entrepreneur. She regularly speaks to audiences on topics relating to business development, marketing, and sales strategies. 

Maribeth graduated with a degree in journalism from Syracuse University and has an MBA from George Washington University. She lives in the Chicago, Illinois, area with her husband and two teenagers.

About the book:
The Connectors: How the World's Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life (Wiley, September 2009, ISBN: 978-0-470-48818-8, $22.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling 800-225-5945. In Canada, call 800-567-4797.