If you’ve ever met me in person, you probably assume I’m an extrovert since I have a very loud laugh and can be outgoing in many situations. You might be surprised then to learn that the thought of attending a networking event gives me sweaty armpits (Sorry if that’s TMI).
I dread the idea of working a room where I don’t know anyone. Small talk over wilted carrot sticks and people plumping themselves and their accomplishments up….ugh.
However, I do understand the deep value of in-person networking to help me excel at my job, to open career opportunities, and for personal fulfillment. Especially when I was freelancing, networking was crucial to developing new business.
Networking can also help you meet potential investors and mentors, and connect with people who can teach you about industry best practices and new trends or technologies.
60% of people say that networking has helped them directly and indirectly find new clients, referrals, and job opportunities.
So in the same spirit of how I’ve learned to embrace sales and selling despite my initial discomfort, I’ve learned some tricks to minimize the agony of networking while maximizing the benefits.
Figure out what works for you
I am much more comfortable working a small setting like a luncheon or a workshop where people are seated at a table together than I am walking into a reception where everyone is standing around in clusters clutching their drinks and then have to figure out how to insert myself into those clusters.
If I’m at an event where we're at a table, it’s really easy for me to introduce myself, get the conversation going, and even connect others if they're feeling a little awkward themselves. I’m good at this and totally at ease with it, so I look for events in this format. Breakfasts, luncheons, dinners, workshops, and other small group events.
You don’t have to go to everything - there’s no rule that says you have to go on every business boat cruise or cocktail mixer in your industry. Figure out which situations make you less sweaty and then find events to match that.
47.6% of people prefer smaller, more intimate networking groups compared to 4.8% who said they like large crowds.- Canadian Networking Survey
Validate your events
In the same way you should validate your leads before spending too much time chasing them down for business, do the same for networking events.
Not all networking events are going to have the kind of people you want to connect with. And the kind of people you want to connect with may change depending on your objectives.
Going to an industry event to meet new peers and potential mentors might be great if you’re looking for professional development, but it’s not necessarily the right place to shop if you’re looking for new clients.
Or if you’re looking for investors, you need to find the events where you know people with money are going to be.
Again, you don’t have to go to everything and it’s a waste of time and your energy to do so. Decide on your goal and find an event where the majority of the people attending that event can help you achieve it.
Before I go to an event, I usually scan the attendee list (sometimes this is available on the event website) to see if there's anyone I’m interested in meeting. That way I can prepare a bit in advance what I might say as an opener, what they might be interested in, and the best way I can engage with them.
I also do a little extra research on what’s been happening in their business lately - maybe they won an award, landed a new contract, or started offering a new service. Anything I can find to connect with them on a level a little deeper than just, “So the coffee’s pretty crap, eh?” and demonstrate I’m interested.
Prepare your pitch
If talking to new people makes you tongue tied, having a script prepared in advance will help ease that worry.
I don’t mean reciting a speech or giving a hard core sell so you sound like a robot, but making sure you have good, natural responses to simple questions like, “What do you do?”, “What differentiates your business?”, What’s the opportunity?”, or “Why are you looking for investment?”
It may seem like a no-brainer but it’s surprising how blank your mind can go when you’re feeling uncomfortable.
Imagine questions you’re likely to be asked and then write down some general points of how you can answer them in a way that is accurate, interesting, natural, and leaves the door open to more conversation.
Also think about the different people you might be talking to, like a potential client versus an investor, and how you can tailor your answer to capture their specific interests.
Just don’t talk too much about yourself and your business. It’s important to ask questions, listen to the answer, and then respond with something that builds on the conversation.
It’s networking event hell to be stuck with a lukewarm wine glass in hand listening someone drone on about themselves. You’re here to learn about people and how you might mutually benefit each other and the only way you’ll do that is by asking questions and learning from the answers.
Act like a human
You’re going to be a red hot strike out if all you do is talk about business and hard sell everyone you meet. Like all social interactions, think about having conversations.
Those conversations don’t need to be only about business. Maybe they start with a concert you just attended, or you heard someone talking about their kid who plays soccer like your kid does, or it turns out you went to the same university.
People want to do business with people they can relate to, who they connect with. You’ll be more memorable that way when it’s time to follow up. So try to relax, take it down a notch, and act naturally.
Bring a buddy
Everyone needs a wingman, right? So when I’m cruising the event attendee list for potential people I might want to meet, I also look to see who might be going that I already know.
Knowing even one person at an event can give you a little comfort zone and an extra shot of confidence so you don’t feel like you’re the only loser in the room who doesn’t know everyone (guaranteed: there is no one in the room who knows everyone).
I also try to think of friends or coworkers who might benefit from the same event and invite them to come with me.
It doesn’t mean you only talk to that person but having a partner in crime can make it easier to break the ice, they might be more outgoing than you, and maybe they know other attendees to introduce you to. It’s kind of like water wings, you still have to get wet but at least you’re not going to drown, alone.
Some conferences and networking events have their own buddy programs to help first timers get the most out of the event. They’ll match you up with event alumni who show you the ropes and introduce you to other attendees.
This is great way to gradually warm yourself to an event where you know no one, rather than forcing you to immediately jump off the deep end as soon as you enter the room.
Manage your own expectations
Go easy on yourself. You don’t have to meet everyone in the room. Set a small goal for yourself, like talk with 4 new people, or meet that one potentially high value person that leads to a follow-up email or maybe even a meeting.
Keep in mind that networking is about planting seeds for longer term relationships. You don’t have to seal the deal right there over the stale pita bread and hummus. Make contact, make meaningful contact, and then nurture the relationship from there.
If crowded social situations make you anxious, pace yourself. Further to the last point, don’t put crazy expectations on how many people you “should” meet or what the outcome “should” be.
Operate at the level that’s comfortable for you. That being said, I always think it’s healthy to push yourself slightly out of your comfort zone, otherwise how will we ever grow? So find the right balance and work it.
Take breaks between meeting people if you need to. Grab a drink, take a breather in the washroom, step outside as if you have to take a call and just catch your breath for a few minutes. Recharged, head back in and continue to work your business card swapping magic.
And don’t feel you have to stay for the entire event either. Decide to stay 30 minutes or an hour, whatever length helps you feel like you made a sincere effort without wigging out.
Like the “bring a buddy” tip, this is my other personal favourite hack to easier networking.
Events organizers are often looking for volunteers to do things like work the registration table or be a speaker liaison.
By volunteering, you’re instantly making a connection with the event and its attendees. You’ll automatically meet new people in a more natural way that gives you common ground, making it easier to start a conversation, and maybe you’ll gain access to those VIPs you wanted to meet.
I also think volunteering in general is a great way to expand your network, whether it’s for a charity, community, or industry organization. I wrote a post about How Volunteering Can Generate New Business a few months ago.
Don’t let all that prep, priming, and perseverance you put into actually attending the networking event and making connections go to waste. Follow up with the people you met, and soon.
Depending on how your conversation went, send an email or follow-up by phone within a few days of the event. Keep it short and focused, reminding them of your conversation, and then add whatever call to action might be appropriate. Maybe that’s a coffee date, sending a link to an article they’ll find interesting, a request for a full-fledged meeting, or maybe just touching base to say it was nice to meet them.
Keep your response in line with the last encounter in a way that moves the relationship forward naturally.
Network Your Existing Network
Sometimes it can be easy to overlook what’s right under our noses. Like the valuable network you already have with friends and former co-workers.
The benefit of this network is that you already know and are comfortable with these people so you don’t have to worry about how to break the ice. Staying up to date on what’s happening with them and filling them in on what’s up with you can help open doors and start new conversations that could pay off down the road.
Don’t get lazy though. Having sushi with your BFF every week like you always do is not networking. I’m talking about friends/acquaintances you don’t see or talk to on a regular basis, and staying in touch with people you used to work with - meet for coffee, lunch, or a beer after work.
I have found this enormously beneficial in terms of staying on top of what’s happening locally and gaining awesome intel on things like new jobs opportunities, potential hires, business leads, and good old fashioned industry gossip.
That person has sweaty armpits, too
Here’s a final thought to comfort you: 90% of people at a networking event either feel just like you do or has felt that way at some point. Everyone knows walking into a room of strangers can be daunting, even if you thrive on it.
But remember, everyone is there for the same reason: to meet new people, to make new connections. That’s the whole point of networking. They want to meet you, they want to hear what you have to say, and they have their own story to tell.
So slap on that name tag, grab a cup of watery coffee, smile, and fake it til you make it like the networking pro you were born to be.