Most of us consider networking events to be a four-letter word. The word conjures up visions of dark rooms filled with overdressed people handing out business cards, and trying to sell you on their newest, latest, greatest product or opportunity. While the prospect of attending a networking event on purpose can seem a bit intimidating, I’m going to show you how you can not only survive your next event, but actually thrive.
On almost every chart that ranks peoples phobias, the fear of attending networking events hovers near the top of the list. While approximately fifty-one percent of the population are classic introverts, closer to sixty percent of people consider themselves shy. If you consider yourself to be in that number you are not alone. Barbara Walters, Seattle Seahawks Marshawn Lynch, Gloria Estefan and Johnny Depp all self-identify as being extremely shy when interviewed.
How To Gain The Advantage
There are things you can do before you attend networking events that can give you a bit of an advantage.
1. Who is hosting the networking event? Who are the panelists? Find out as much as you can in the days leading up to the event. No need to hire a private investigator. A cursory Internet and social media search should suffice. Google is your friend. What school did she attend? Do you have any friends in common? Children, activities, etc.
2. Read a newspaper or magazine. It doesn’t matter which one. Just read something. The key to mastering a networking event is being interested in others. However, you must also be interesting yourself. If you are just regurgitating what the talking heads on TV are saying, you are, unfortunately, not going to be very interesting. Bonus tip: If the function you are attending is for a specific group or organization, spend a bit of time becoming familiar with what they do. No need to become an expert; just know enough to be able to ask specific follow up questions.
3. Rev up your positive self-talk. One of the biggest challenges to effective networking is negative self-talk. “No one wants to talk to me,” or “I’m introverted, so I’ll just stand here in the corner,” or “How soon can I leave without anyone noticing?” These types of voices in your head can completely short circuit your success at a networking event before you even get started. Try to reframe your internal conversations. “Someone here needs to hear what I have to say,” or “I just need one good connection to make this all worthwhile.” Remember, this self-talk goes a long way towards making you appear more confident and approachable.
4. Power Pose – Several studies have shown that simply standing in certain positions can actually change your physiological state. According to the book, Presence, by Amy Cuddy, simply standing like a superhero before you enter a networking event can raise the levels of confidence hormones like testosterone and adrenaline in your bloodstream before you enter a room, giving your confidence levels a natural boost. If you struggle with confidence in social settings, try this. A few minutes before you enter the room get into what she calls the Wonder Woman or Superman stance for two minutes. If you’re not familiar with those comic book characters, whenever either of these two heroes was about to go into battle, they would take a stand in front of their enemy with their feet a bit wider than shoulder width, hands on hips, chest out and chin slightly elevated.
Make Your Entrance Memorable
How you enter the room can be one of the most critical things you do. The way you walk in the door can set the tone for every interaction you have at the event. Let me explain. While people may not specifically be watching as you enter the room , they will sense the change in energy. As humans, we are wired to notice changes in room dynamics subconsciously. There are some subtle things you can do to make sure you are seen as a positive force and someone people should get to know.
1. Arrive early – Getting to the networking event a bit early may sound counterintuitive, especially if you didn’t want to go in the first place, but being the early bird offers several advantages. First, you can have a conversation with the host before other guests arrive (you did your research, right?). Second, you can take this time to get to know the volunteers and servers. Why is it important to be on first name basis with the people working the event you ask? Social proof. According to Robert Cialdini, the number one factor people use in deciding whether they like you or not, is if other people like you first. If you are seen as well-known and liked, people will assume you are someone they should know and like. So, when you walk up to the bar and say, “Hey Ralph, can I get another tonic?” and Ralph says, “Sure, Ray. On the rocks?”, people will subconsciously think you must be known and liked.
2. The 5&30 Second Rule – If you cannot arrive early, you must speak to the first person you see within five seconds of entering the room. It doesn’t matter who it is, what they are wearing, what look they have on their face. Just walk up to them with a big smile and say “Hi! My name is_____.” When they respond, follow-up with either, “Have you been here long?” or my favorite, “Are you having a good time?” It really doesn’t matter what the follow-up question is, just have something ready. The goal here isn’t to have a long, deep conversation. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. This initial conversation should only last for thirty seconds. After initial pleasantries, politely excuse yourself. “I’m going to mingle a bit,” or “Let me find the bar.” Then do the same thing to the next person you see within five seconds. Do this three or four more times to warm up.
3. Act like a host and not a guest – Have you ever hosted an event? If you have, you noticed how your posture was different; you walked around and made sure everyone was comfortable and having a good time. Where is it written that you can’t do that at every event? Taking a host posture is so much more effective for good networking than being a guest. This is all you were doing in the last exercise—acting like a host. Again, what this does it make it look like you are known and liked. Think about it. As you are having your quick conversations, it appears as if everyone knows you. No one else in the room knows that you just met those people a mere moments ago. Unlike high school, you can choose to be popular.
Working The Networking Event
1. Compliments are worth their weight in gold – Think about the time you took picking out your outfit, shoes, accessories, hairstyle, etc. (if you didn’t, trust me, others did). There is no better lead-in to a conversation than “Nice _____. Is that _______?” That’s it. If someone is wearing something, they think it says something about them, and if you noticed it, you must be a wonderful, interesting person. If you are feeling shy or uncertain of what to say, a compliment is always welcome. Caveat: the comment must be genuine. If you don’t like someone’s shoes, jacket, etc. don’t try to pretend. People can see through insincere compliments.
2. Do butt in – Sometimes we feel nervous about jumping into a conversation that is already underway. However, if people are there to network, you are doing them a favor. The stated goal of networking events is to talk with as many people as you can. If people stand there talking to the same person for an hour, it’s probably a waste of everyone’s time. Proper etiquette for approaching a group is to walk up to them from the front so they both can see you, and stand quietly until there is a break in conversation. Sometimes they will continue talking for a while and ignore you. You can take a hint and move on or do as I do sometimes and change the subject. “That’s fascinating! So, how do you two know each other?” Boom! I’m in. Of course, don’t be purposefully rude, but sometimes you have to be assertive to jump into conversations.
3. Talk to your friends on your own time – The largest part of the word networking is working. When you are at an event, you should be working. One common trap many of us fall into is seeing an old friend or co-worker and spending the next hour or so catching up on old times. When the evening is up, you’re fully caught up on Johnny’s baseball accomplishments, and Sarah’s upcoming nuptials, but you haven’t made any new connections. It’s okay to say hi and promise to catch up at a later time, but spend no more than ten minutes in any one conversation. The goal of the night is to gather as many contacts as possible, not to connect on a deep level with anyone (that comes in the next stage).
4. Keep your hands free – I know it’s hard to turn down an open bar and free snacks, but remember you are there to work. One of the primary connection points in making connection with others is the handshake. Done properly, it can send all kinds of positive signals to a new contact. But if you have a drink in one hand and plate in the other, it makes it difficult to shake hands. Of course, if you are coming straight from work it’s okay to grab a snack and a drink, making sure that you talk with the person in front and behind you in line. Just don’t walk around all night with your hands and/or mouth full; it makes you look unapproachable.
5. The handshake – Once a upon a time, that handshake was a way for people approaching each other to show that they weren’t holding a weapon. In more modern times, at least in western culture, it is still a way of showing trust, albeit without the fear of being stabbed by the other party. There’s actually some science to the custom of handshakes as well. According to studies, when we touch another human being our brains release a chemical called oxytocin, also known as “the love hormone.” This chemical is thought by many to increase trust through pair bonding. In short, we tend to trust others more after we have touched them. The handshake remains a simple way to experience this bond without incurring lawsuits. Bonus Tip 1: Use two hands in your handshake. Don’t cover the other person’s hand, but use your free hand to lightly touch the other person’s elbow or shoulder during the handshake. Bonus Tip 2: If you suffer from sweaty palms, grab a napkin or two from the buffet or bar, and hold it in your right hand. Switch it to your left when it’s handshake time. (There are also some medical treatments for sever sweat; ask your doctor).
6. Let me introduce you to my friend – No sweeter words can be heard at networking events. Someone has been so nice as to do some of the hard work for you. You now have a certified, pre-qualified contact hand delivered to you. Here’s the secret to great networking—you become the introducer. If you’ve followed most of the preceding steps, you should have connected with 5-10 people early in the evening. Now make it your job to introduce people to your friend to when you think the two would be a good fit.
Hopefully, these tips will help you the next time you you get an invitation to a networking event.
If you would like more information about this topic, pick up a copy of my book, Connect Like A Boss on Amazon.