A colleague I admire – she balances the details and big picture while still having a good time – and I had lunch recently. While catching up on life, she recalled an event she was at the night before. “I’m still trying to get better at networking,” she confessed. Her next comment surprised me: “You’re so good at going to events and networking, you’ll have to tell me all your secrets!”
Networking is full of hurdles – clearing the calendar, understanding if the purpose is worth time and money, registration and payment (and maybe an expense report), parking and transportation issues, and then getting in in the door on time. Once you’re there, walking into a room of people you don’t know is scary. As humans, we crave contact and connections with others. It is no fun being on the outside when it appears that everyone else is having a great time and seems to know everyone in the room when you don’t.
But WHY do I need to network?
I hear people say all the time, “I’m not looking for a job, so I don’t need to network.” There is far more benefit to networking than trying to find a job, good reasons that support putting thought and effort and energy into feeling more confident while you network. Here are only just a few examples:
- Meeting new friends or future co-workers (you can recruit them to your company!)
- Connecting with possible mentors, advisors, and sponsors
- Exposure to a new sector of your industry, to people doing important or interesting work you hadn’t known about before
- Education on emerging trends and challenges
- Network INSIDE your company to build deeper relationships and knowledge
If you can first adjust your mindset about networking, and then apply some practices, networking will become a less overwhelming experience and hopefully one that is more enjoyable!
First, adjust your mindset
When I was an early teenager, those most awkward of years for anyone, my mom was first running for elected office in our hometown. My parents thought it would be a great lesson and exposure to have the three kids involved, so involve us they did. It was terrifying then, but I am thankful now, because it helped create a different mindset around communicating with others. Ringing doorbells in new neighborhoods or walking into a room of strangers to ask for a vote, I realized I had a job to do. This was purely business, and others would be interested in how they could benefit from me being there. Otherwise, there was no need for me to be interrupting. Over the years, I learned a lot about people that made these kinds of tasks easier to approach.
- Most everyone in the room is a little bit nervous also.
- People are people, no matter their title. We’re all going through this world together.
- Finding out what is important to someone and helping them to solve their problems is a great way to provide value
- Some people are naturally rude or disinterested – it isn’t your fault.
Then, practice, practice, practice
The “game” can begin ahead of the event beginning. These are a few practices I have to prepare and feel more confident before getting to the room.
- Check the guest list. Maybe you see someone you want to meet.
- Evaluate directions, timing, and parking. Having logistics under control reduces stress before you’re even on your way.
- Pack business cards. This is obvious, but often forgotten. And your challenge should not be to give away or collect as many as you can. It comes off as sleazy, so if you focus on quality over quantity, you’re in a good place.
- Research speakers or attendees. If you are attending a panel or event with a speaker, you can gain some insight about why others might be there as well or if there are products or services that could provide a partnership opportunity (another reason for business cards!)
Once I walk in the door, there are a few approaches I take to make my life easier and increase the opportunities to build connections. Here is what I do once I’m at a networking event.
- Carry as little as possible so it is easier to shake hands. Holding bags and coats requires constant adjustment and takes away from full engagement. The coat rack is a great place to greet other attendees!
- Grab a drink of water first thing. A quick glass will help with any thirst and limit the likelihood you might get dry later.
- Avoid all other food and beverage if possible, until you can be seated. I try to come already caffeinated and having had a snack, or an early meal. When you are hungry, you aren’t focused on the conversation. Avoid the food and avoid the stain or spill.
- Wear a smile. This isn’t a ginormous grin from your high school yearbook, but is something friendly that makes you approachable.
- Walk slowly into the room. This goes great with the glass of water tip. See if you know anyone or spot anyone else who might be looking for someone to talk to. If you’re alone, this can help you find your entry and direction into the room.
- Separate from anyone you came with. If you didn’t come alone, see if either of you can make introductions to new contacts. In the case where there are no mutual connections, separate yourselves to start. Hold off on re-uniting until you can make introductions.
- Keep the cell phone out of sight. People will assume you are too busy to chat if on your phone – no one considers you are scrolling through social media posts hoping someone will say hi. It shows immense disinterest in the people and the event. Why did you bother showing up? You’re here to get better!
- Greet everyone you walk by. Even if people are already in groups, making eye contact and saying hello and something like “how are you?” can be a good ice breaker. You might be invited into a group, or be able to determine who might be easy to talk to later.
- Ask tons of questions of other people. Why did they come to this event? What interesting projects are they working on? Did you see the game or show last night? By asking questions, you show interest in the other person. That allows someone to feel more at ease talking to you.
- Inquire about sharing opportunities. This goes beyond swapping business cards (but please do that!). You need to see if there is a chance for future connection.
- Know when the conversation should end, and thank the person for their time. It is the little things that make a difference to people, so end the communication politely and on a high note.
And once at home or back at the office, there are a few things left to finish the networking experience:
- Recap what you learned. This is especially important for when you attended a professional development event or discovered unpublished/non-public information.
- Keep promises. If you said you would follow up or are interested in talking to someone further, send an email to start.
- Add contacts to your system. Whether in your phone, an app that scans and organizes business cards, placing in a Rolodex or organizing system (some people still use these and love them!), or entering in Outlook, make sure to keep the info of people you want to keep in touch with. Add highlights of the conversation into the description section along with the date and event where you met.
- Continuing the conversation on LinkedIn. Use the internet to your advantage! Don’t forget to send a custom note with the invite. This is a great way to learn more about the other person based on what they share.
These are all practices that should make it easier for you to not have to stress with networking events. Perhaps armed with this knowledge you might even sign up for a few more you were afraid to attend!
Showing up to a networking event ready to mingle with other professionals may find you friends, new colleagues, a job, or a client. Make sure the first event you go to is not your last. Try different organizations and varying topics. Ask others what events they like attending. Once you become more confident with networking events, it will be easier to have fun and take advantage of more opportunities!
How have you conquered networking? Is there anything that still scares you walking into a room? Do you think these suggestions will help you feel more at ease and make better connections?