Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a return to face to face networking, and I’ve had several clients express utter dread at the thought of having to attend such events, especially after a two-year respite. In fact, although pre-pandemic, I rather enjoyed networking events (I’m fascinated by people and have never had a problem striking up a conversation); I went to one a few weeks ago and felt a bit nervous for the first time ever!
Networking effectively, especially when you’re job hunting (up to 70% of roles come through people we know), when you own your own business or are in a sales-type position, is an essential skill that can significantly boost your career prospects. We often hear, ‘It’s not what we know, but who we know’, yet having to put yourself ‘out there’ and mingle is one thing many people fear.
Why Networking Can Feel Scary
As I’ve discussed in previous articles, our autonomic nervous system plays a huge part in how we feel about networking. In any new environment or when we meet a person for the first time, our brains can perceive it as a threat. It’s our inbuilt safety mechanism. So, it stands to reason that attending an event, especially if you don’t know anyone or the venue is unfamiliar, your internal fight, flight, freeze response can get triggered.
In terms of networking, the stress response can look like:
• Flight – not wanting to go, feeling the need to run away/ leave quickly, cancelling/ deciding not to go (especially last-minute), justifying something else as more important.
• Freeze – hiding in a corner hoping no one will talk to you, becoming obsessed with your phone, spending a disproportionate time in the bathroom!
Seven Top Tips for Networking
1. Make It All About Them!
We are all the centre of our own universe, and most people like nothing better than to talk about themselves. Therefore, GET INTERESTED! When we focus on others, it takes the pressure off us. Most people are more than happy to talk about themselves and will usually keep talking as long as you allow them to unless they are particularly self-aware and change the subject/ask about you.
Years ago, I was on a 12-hour flight on my own to Las Vegas for business. The woman who sat next to me (also alone) talked to me – or rather AT me – for the whole fight (this was before I learnt how to set boundaries). I literally did not utter a word. Then, when we were disembarking, she exclaimed, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re so wonderful! You’re such a fascinating person. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our conversation’. She knew absolutely nothing about me; I’d just listened… for 12 hours!
2. Prepare Your Questions
If you don’t know what questions to ask someone, pre-prepare some. It’s a great way to ease your nerves and calm your mind. Consider:
• What do you do?
• Who do you work for?
• What do you love about your job?
• What are the challenges you/your company/your industry are facing?
• What drew you to this event?
• What are you hoping to learn?
• Do you know anyone else here?
3. Practise Your Elevator Pitch
Having an elevator pitch sounds scary, but basically, it means being able to talk about yourself for around a minute. I suggest preparing yourself beforehand and practising saying it out loud. The more you practise, the easier it will be in a real-life situation. Include things like:
• Your job role
• Your employer
• Previous career history
• Why you’re there
• What you’re hoping to learn
• Who you’re hoping to meet
If you feel self-conscious, do your elevator pitch and then put the emphasis back on the other person by asking your pre-prepared questions about them. Again, it will take the focus away from you.
4. Change Your Physiology and Smile!
As our physiology affects our emotions (and vice versa), a big smile coupled with strong, confident body language will help you feel better and make you more approachable. So ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ really can work.
In Amy Cuddy’s excellent Ted Talk and her book, ‘Presence’, she discusses the benefits of holding a ‘power pose’ to change your biochemistry, helping you perform better in uncertain/challenging situations.
The Power Pose (Think of Superman/woman)
Stand up tall, hands on hips, feet apart, chin up, chest out, breathing deeply. Hold the stance for a minimum of two minutes.
When we do this pose, we release a small amount of testosterone (not enough to give you a hairy chest!) that allows us to feel more confident and in control. Before entering the main event, I recommend practising this posture somewhere discreet, like the restroom or outside the venue.
5. Ask For An Introduction
According to clients, one of their biggest fears is walking into a room and interrupting people already deep in conversation. If that’s the case for you, I recommend talking to the organisers and asking them to introduce you to someone.
If that isn’t an option, simply walk over to a group and smile; that’s usually a great opener. Most people will acknowledge you and draw you into the conversation. However, if they don’t, likely they are deep in discussion. That can happen to even the most experienced networkers. Don’t take it personally because it isn’t; how can it be they don’t know you! Instead, quietly slip away and approach another group.
6. Avoid Using Your Phone
When you’re feeling a little insecure, it’s easier to take out your phone and pretend to be busy. However, it’s pretty unlikely that anyone will approach you while you’re focused on your phone. So resist the urge. Instead, engage, smile, look people in the eye and introduce yourself.
7. Set Your Intention
Like anything else, we get better at networking through practice. Try not to take it too seriously. Reframing can help here. Before agreeing or signing up to attend an event, consider your intention. What do you want to get out of it? What results would make it worth your while? For example, do you want to talk to five new people, get an answer to a specific question, ‘sell’ a new product, etc.?
As I said initially, I love understanding what makes people tick. So, for me, depending on the event, my intention for attending could include:
• Meeting and learning about new people
• Learning something new
• Telling people what I do so that they potentially hire me
• Being introduced to people who can recommend me and my services to others
• Understanding the challenges that people are facing to keep my content current
If you struggle with the thought of networking and would like some support in feeling more confident, contact me for a free consultation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to talk in confidence.