You arrive late and sidle into the room. Avoid eye contact with the people standing around in groups of twos and threes, and pretend to look for someone by gazing pensively into the middle distance. After lining up for a drink, walk around a bit nibbling on pretzels, then pause to pick up a brochure and feign interest. Loiter at the buffet, then take out your phone to check your email and Twitter feed. Stare thoughtfully at the screen, as if receiving important news. Notice someone standing alone, consider approaching but instead get another drink.
Repeat these steps, then retire to the corner to hang out with that affable-looking potted palm.
The idea of ‘working a room’ isn’t too appealing for most of us. The fear of awkward interactions, boring conversations, or worse, languishing alone in a corner, can trigger a full-on a junior high school flashback.
I attend a lot of conferences and corporate events, both as participant and speaker. Now I’m an extrovert, and I enjoy public speaking, but I confess that I sometimes find myself planning an escape through the hotel kitchen to avoid the dreaded ‘networking break’.
You may be thinking, “isn’t this why social media was invented”? Despite the hit of dopamine we get when someone likes our post, nobody’s heart is warmed by the glow of a LinkedIn message as it is by the smile of a live person. People talking to people has always been the way business gets done.
A few ideas on how to network more effectively and take the pain out of that ‘meet ‘n greet’:
- Ditch the pitch: The worst thing you can do when networking is turn it into a sales pitch. Networking should be about making meaningful connections and building rapport. When the spotlight is on you, have a short, simple way to describe what you do. Leave people wanting to know more.
- Think of networking as a process: It’s not a one-off event, but rather an ongoing, natural process of building relationships with people that you actually like. A lifelong practice of making new friendships based on mutual support.
- Focus on giving more than getting. Be a connector and an introducer and help others – opportunities will often follow. What you have to give may have nothing to do with your work, and that’s ok. A book or movie recommendation, a suggestion of a resource, an offer of an introduction. People will remember who pointed them in the right direction, or put them in touch with someone useful.
- Be present. Not scanning the room for a more interesting or promising connection, or the next plate of spring rolls. Make eye contact, open your body language, and direct your energy into not just hearing but really listening to the people you meet.
- Put away the phone. See above. While checking your device can be a comfort when you feel awkward and aren’t sure who to talk to, focus on that tiny screen sends a message that it’s more important than what’s happening in the real world.
- Aim for quality rather than quantity. Set yourself a reasonable goal of meeting a handful of people. Prioritise high-quality interactions over a large number of connections. Have some one-on-one conversations. The benefits will come.
- Let them lead. Most people enjoy talking about themselves, so let them do the talking. If you’re nervous, prepare a handful of open-ended questions that you can ask pretty much anyone. Look for common ground: ask about their job, their interest in the event, what’s the best part about working for their organization.
- Focus on being interested not interesting: Trying to impress risks feeling – and seeming – fake. It can also escalate feelings of anxiety. Like most human interactions, networking is most successful when it’s authentic. Just be yourself.
- Follow up. If you’ve offered to follow up, send an article or a book recommend, do it right away. And if you’re not interested in having a coffee next week, be honest and don’t promise to do so.
The word “work” is part of networking for a reason. It takes us outside our comfort zone. Take the pressure off by approaching networking as an opportunity for discovery and learning.
Aim to go to the events that genuinely excite or interest you, intending to meet interesting people. And outside of organized professional events, remember to make the most of your valuable existing networks. You never know who your friends, family and acquaintances know, or what journey they’re on.
See you over canapes soon…
But first, leave a comment in the box below. Tell me how you feel about networking.
Then: share this, email, Facebook, what have you. Who knows what connections it could lead to…