If you’ve never been to a networking event because you think it’s a little weird to strike up conversations with complete strangers, almost as if they’re the professional equivalent to chatting people up, then you’re right. It is weird for those who are introverted or shy. However, for HR professionals, or indeed any professional, these events can be so exciting, that help build working relationships, opening up new opportunities to learn, share good practices, and progress your career.
If you feel incredibly nervous about this idea of torture for the socially awkward, then please believe me it’s not as bad as it seems once you’ve dived in head first. Here are some key points and tips about surviving your first networking event.
Everyone’s a stranger – including you
First and foremost, remember that a good networking event is one where no one knows each other. When showing up to these things and seeing people talk with each other, it’s understandable to think that you’re the only one who doesn’t know anyone, almost like you’re back at school and see all the cliques around you that you’re not part of.
Remembering they are all strangers will in turn remind you of something else – they’re here for the same reason as you, to network with new people. It’s easy to forget this but reminding yourself of this before and during the event will begin to de-weird striking up a conversation with a stranger.
For introverts or shy people it can be uncomfortable to strike up a conversation with a stranger in any environment, but at networking events, it’s expected. You have a free pass to ‘be weird’ and say hello to someone you don’t know and asking their name.
So how do you strike up a conversation with someone? Luckily, as mentioned, these strangers expect to have another stranger – i.e. you – come up and say hello and begin a conversation. Keeping a strong hold to this thought helped me with the first 5 seconds of a new conversation.
You take a dive into the abyss with your introduction, a simple ‘Hi, my name is Bob’, that’s all that’s needed to break the ice. Before the 5 seconds are up, the stranger responds similarly, providing their name and asking what you do.
Phew. That’s all it takes. Crisis over. This isn’t dating. They’re not going to look you up and down, roll their eyes, and walk off leaving you and your extended hand hanging. They’ll know what you’re doing; you want to start a conversation with them, get to know them and their work, and to discuss similar interests.
In terms of actually approaching people, I find three particular strategies help me the most:
- Saying hi to someone on their own – they’ll be relieved not to be seen on their own;
- Making a passing comment to someone nearby who is, for example, at the bar or pinching hors d’oeuvres, like ‘try the mushrooms, they’re delicious’ before saying ‘Hi, my name is…’;
- Or, well into the event, and you’re feeling a bit adventurous, joining into a group conversation that includes someone you already know from one of the first two approaches.
Keeping the conversation going
Make sure that once you have introduced yourself you have a mental list of questions you can ask the new person. (Most) People love talking about themselves, and the quickest way to make a conversation comfortable at the earliest point is to ask questions about them and really get to know them and their work.
Laying this foundation will make the conversation flow with little or no effort, and lead on to follow up questions and new topics naturally.
The questions I find help me lay this foundation are:
- What do you do?
- Where do you work?
- Is this your first time at one of these events?
- Did you travel up here today?
- Are you staying up here in <insert city name> for much longer after the event?
- How are you finding the event, discovered any exciting new contacts?
These all break the second layer of ice that all open up to more follow up questions based on the answer. The trick is, as with any networking event, is talk to them because you’re genuinely interested.
Your goal for the event might be to discover new contacts, what they can do for you, and what you can do for them, but this shouldn’t be the reason to start a conversation.
This sounds a bit contradictory, but I have always found the most interesting contacts I have built up were from friendly and interesting conversations that didn’t have a hidden agenda.
I believe rapport can authentically be developed by showing genuine interest in both the person you’re speaking to, and what they have to say, and it is this rapport that can lead onto fantastic working relationships.
Working the room to seek out only those of instant benefit is not the idea of these network events and the inauthenticity will eventually expose you as a network shark. Have interest in people first, enjoy a nice conversation with someone new, even if nothing comes of it. But if something does come of it, it will be built on authenticity.
Like any conversation between two people, there is going to be chemistry (not in the romantic sense obv). This was another thought I consciously held onto when speaking with new people. They are just that: people.
And some people gel, some people don’t. So when striking up a conversation, remind yourself it is 100% completely natural and acceptable if conversation doesn’t flow between you and them.
When this happens you must save your own confidence and mental stamina by cutting them off. Venturing outside your comfort zone is putting you in a vulnerable position which means any negative experience, like struggling to keep awkward conversation going, will impact you on a disproportionate scale. Once this happens, it in turn takes a disproportionately longer time to recover.
You needn’t be rude to them. It isn’t their fault, and it isn’t yours. For your own mental preservation, you can simply excuse yourself to the toilet or to the bar. Don’t say you need to make a call or talk to someone else because it suggests you want to talk to someone better than them.
If you were on the receiving end, it’ll hurt like hell. Like I said, it’s not their fault the conversation isn’t working, so be respectful of them but also to your confidence by leaving courteously.
Following up on really interesting conversations is a must-do in order to maintain a new professional relationship.
If you would like to carry on a conversation, or follow them on social media to hear more of their thoughts on a particular specialism, or even introduce them to someone from your own network that they would find helpful, swapping business cards and connecting with them on social media are the two sure ways of doing this.
With business cards that are now cheap and easy to make, and the growing popularity of online presence through social media, these shouldn’t be too hard to do.
What’s crucial for the effectiveness of this however is making sure you’re quick to do it. A day or two after meeting is the ideal timescale you’re looking for.
A really useful tip that proves popular with anyone I share my business card with is to include a simple blank text box somewhere on the card with ‘Where/When did we meet?’ above it.
This way, they can quickly make a note of when and where they met you as a reminder for when it inevitably gets lost amongst the other business cards they’ve collected. Here’s how I did mine:
One last tip – make sure you recover after an event like this. Introverts need to be on their own and recharge after ‘peopling’ so it’s important to book a day or two in your schedule immediately afterwards to deflate.
As fun as these events are, they’re mentally exhausting, especially if you’re not used to being outside your comfort zone for so long.
My experience of my first networking event, like a lot of things outside my comfort zone, was way less scary than my imagination made them out to be.
Going head first into it – or the ripping-off-the-plaster technique – is, I find, the best way to avoid hesitation and procrastination, the two things that delay you getting to a point where you realise it’s not as bad as you thought.
I do hope that these coping mechanisms help you overcome your feeling of social awkwardness in what is a really fun and inspiring way of meeting like-minded professionals.
Just understand the key principles of why people are there (to network with people like you), what they expect (for people like you to say ‘hi’ out of the blue, literally as soon as eye contact is made), and what you can learn (the people, their work, and their thoughts on mutual areas of interest).