Imagine that you’ve walked into an industry event filled with people you don’t know. You recognise a couple of faces but couldn’t name them. There are some people that you’ve heard of and admired but have never met. There are others you’d like to speak to but you don’t know how to start. What do you say? What do you do? And for how long do you do it?
It’s interesting how some people can find networking really daunting while others can thrive. Even if you’re usually super comfortable in social situations it can be nerve wracking trying to make a good impression when you’re suddenly surrounded by lots of people you don’t know.
The official definition for networking is “the action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts,” but when you break it down, all it really means is talking to people in a professional manner.
I’m often asked by clients and friends how they can overcome their fear of networking and have more meaningful conversations in these somewhat artificial situations. The easy answer is to say, “just be yourself” – which is true - however, that’s not easy in practice! Here are my top 5 tips for getting the most out of networking:
1. Be ready to introduce yourself
Often when you meet people in professional settings, it can feel like getting blood out of stone when you ask people where they work and what they do. When you’re going to be in a setting where you’re meeting new people, have your ‘elevator pitch’ ready to go. You don’t have to be a startup to have an elevator pitch, we all need one. It’s the 30 second sound bite about you that will help you make a connection to others.
Helping people get to know you by telling them about yourself is a great way to kick off a conversation, while also getting your name out there. Tell people about your business or the company you work for, your role at said business, or what brings you to the event you’re at. You could also talk about what you’re wanting to get out of it, or how you’re connected to the network or the host.
If this is something that makes you nervous then write it down and read it out loud. It can help ease the pressure when you’re in the moment,
2. Be curious
The best advice I got when I was starting out working in PR and meeting journalists who were often twice my age, was to ask lots of questions because people generally like to talk about themselves! Be curious and find out how they got to where they are in their career, what do they love about their job (there’s got to be something!), what lights them up outside of work, what are their proudest achievements?
People naturally feel more comfortable talking about themselves, so asking someone questions about the thing they know best can be a great way to help the conversation flow, and you never know what you’ll end up learning about them.
3. Have some killer questions in your back pocket
If you’re struggling for conversation (hopefully you’re not!) have some questions in your back pocket ready to go. I recommend the School of Life’s 100 Questions box for ideas as it’s got some thought provoking and unusual ideas. If you don’t have that, ask people where’s the best place they’ve ever travelled to, where they go to recharge, the best book they’ve ever read, or activities they like to do on weekends.
Just remember not to get too personal too quickly. Start off with more surface level questions to build trust before diving a little deeper.
4. Know that the person you’re talking to is probably as worried as you are about what to say.
You’re never going to be the only one at an event who’s there alone, or the only one who’s nervous. Odds are the person you’re speaking to is just as worried that they’ll mess up as you are. So take a breath, be natural, and be forgiving if they do.
It’s also important not to approach a conversation with an agenda. How would you feel if someone you hadn’t met before came up to you and asked for a job? Make sure you’re treating people just as you would like to be treated. Be interested in who they are not what they can do for you.
5. Be approachable
Resting-bored-face is a real thing at networking events, and it makes people 10x less likely to want to speak to you! Make it your aim to look friendly and engaged throughout the conversation or event, even when you’re just walking around the room. Forbes mentions smiling is important when networking as it helps people connect with you, plus it makes you memorable. This is not to say you shouldn’t be expressive or responsive to your surroundings, rather you should approach the scenario with a positive outlook.
6. Always have an exit strategy
When you’re networking you need to be able to move around the room and not get stuck, so you can maximise your exposure to the people around you. I’m not one to play games, so I usually just say “it’s been so lovely to meet you, I’m going to grab a snack and chat to a few more people.” Who can be offended by that?
Now get out there and meet as many people as you can!