I’ll admit it. Networking events are not as much fun for me as they are for some of my colleagues. If you, too, find networking a bit unnerving or just too awkward, then read on. If you’re the type that loves to network, read on also, to give the rest of us a better chance to endure the battle for contacts and business cards.
I recently read the most enlightening book by Devora Zack. It’s called Networking for People Who Hate Networking. She had me at the title and I thoroughly enjoyed every page. I’m going to share some tips with you directly from the book, but I encourage you to read it cover to cover – it’s that good.
Most of us end up going to (or are asked/forced to go to) a networking event every month or so. Knowing this is the case, we may as well make the most of it. It can’t hurt and it can produce some long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships. In the blog post, Cultivate Your Network Like You Mean It, I explain how you should always be willing to be a resource to others, and be sure you follow up with them so you don’t fall off their radar. This time we are going to look at some simple ways to break the ice with someone so you can get to that part of the conversation.
First, prepare for any encounter. Take some time before you arrive to carefully work out what you are willing to share with others. It is a good practice to have one professional and one personal story or accomplishment you’re comfortable sharing with a complete stranger. Maybe it’s something like an award you won or a favorite vacation spot. Just make sure you know what you want to say and rehearse it a few times, just so you feel comfortable with the words you choose.
Also be aware of current events, both local and national/global. This makes conversation much easier, because you’ll be able to contribute. If you don’t know what’s going on in the world, it’s difficult for the other person to carry the entire side of the dialog. You don’t have to know the intimate details of every current event — just pick up the daily paper or read a few online headlines before you go out. Simple, right?
Next, plan to arrive early. I know this sounds crazy, but hear me (and Ms. Zack) out on this. If you get to the event early, you’ll have an easier time making introductions and engaging in conversation. Why? Because you’ll be one of only a few others at the venue. With so few numbers, there is a good chance one of the other people will want to come over and break the silence. You just have to wait for them to come to you. Oh, and remember to smile, so people think you’re approachable and pleasant. Again, you want to make it easy for the other person to do their thing, so you don’t have to.
Ok, what if things are not going as well as I have suggested (because there are so many others who hate networking and have not yet read Ms. Zack’s wonderful book), and you still feel a little intimidated because no one has come over to talk with you? It’s perfectly ok. Just make your way to a food or drink station. These are built-in conversation starters. While in line, offer the person behind you a plate, or ask how they like the presentation of the food. If you’re at the bar, allow someone to go ahead of you and maybe ask about their drink choice if it is an interesting one. If you do not have a preference of drink, order the same and strike a conversation about how you don’t order this often, but it seemed like a nice change of pace.
As the event continues, look for ways to be helpful. Maybe you could offer to get a drink as you’re going for one yourself. Look for opportunities to introduce people that would make good connections for each other. (You don’t have to do much talking and you look like a “real networker”.) Towards the end of the evening, ask if you can assist with the breakdown of the event or offer to volunteer at the next one. (People love volunteers.)
No matter how nervous or shy you are, always remember to smile, be helpful, and go with the flow.