Networking events and other corporate gatherings are great settings for making critical connections. But if you struggle with how to interact with a roomful of strangers, the following tips will help you make the most of these opportunities.
When you are going to a meeting, an affinity group, or an event, if you have a goal in mind, it works better. The goal might be something like: “I will talk with five people here and get to know what they do, where they work, and who they work with.” If you achieve your goal, you can develop greater confidence.
Another goal might be to meet the speaker and have a brief conversation after the presentation with the hope of setting up a longer conversation at a later date. An additional goal might be to see if you want to join the group on a more permanent basis for ongoing networking purposes.
It is also important to have the right mindset. The best attitude to have is this one: “You never know what can happen. Maybe I will meet my next best friend or maybe I will learn something that will make a difference in my ability to change jobs, or find clients.” When people adopt an adventurous attitude they do a lot better when they network. Mindset is everything.
Come to the Event or Meeting Having Done Some Reading on the Topic
When you study up on the topic that is being addressed at the meeting, you will have interesting things to say that add to the conversation! For example, when I went to a conference of career service providers a few years ago, I could see from the brochure that one of the topics for a presentation was whether the following advice is good or bad: “Do what you love and the rest will follow.” Before going to the conference, I read some interesting blogs on that topic and thought about my own reactions to those blogs. Thanks to that preparation, I was able to have more interesting conversations with others who attended that particular talk. I did the same thing with each of the break-out group topics that I signed up to attend.
Learn About the People who Will Be Presenting
If you know the backgrounds and some of the interests of the people at the event you are attending, it will be easier to enrich the conversation. This includes the speakers. For example, once I was speaking on a book tour at a Philadelphia law firm. One of the people in the audience came up to me after the talk and said, “I really enjoyed your remarks, and I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you were a prosecutor in Philadelphia when Ed Rendell was the District Attorney. I actually worked with Rendell when he became the governor of Pennsylvania!” What followed was a lively conversation that would not have happened without that person’s prior research.
Listen Well and Draw the Person Out
The best conversationalists are ones who ask questions, listen well, and follow up with questions that draw the other person out. Sometimes it helps if you think of yourself as an investigative reporter trying to get a story. The story could be the person’s background; you could find out why the person is here and what he or she is getting out of the conference.
Very often the reason people have trouble networking is that they are they are self-focused rather than other-focused. If you are worried about how you are coming across to others, or if you find yourself feeling shy or uncertain, check your thinking. Most likely you are thinking about how you are coming across, instead of focusing on the other person. Change the channel. Don’t think about yourself. Listen to others instead; find out their story.
It is often helpful to realize that you are not the only one feeling this way. Many others are also feeling some degree of nervousness or insecurity. Try to put them at ease. You can even imagine that this is your house or apartment and you have invited them over to chat, and you want them to feel welcome and comfortable.
If There Is a Group, Start with a Person on the Outskirts
If you are entering a room and there are a number of groups engaged in conversation, the best approach is to identify a person on the outskirts of one of the groups. Walk over to that person and put out your hand to shake hands. No one will not shake your hand! Then start the conversation with an opener, draw him or her out, and be curious, following up with questions. Use the ideas above to guide you into a deeper conversation.
Know How to Extricate Yourself from the Conversation
Once you enter into a conversation it can be hard to remove yourself from it. Sometimes it seems rude to leave the other person, so you stay and stay. But if you do that, you limit your networking potential. There are ways to extricate yourself from a conversation. Start by saying how much you have enjoyed meeting and talking with this person, and that you now are going to try to meet a few more people, or connect with another friend who may be here. Then say you hope your paths will cross again. Ask for the person’s card and give your card to him or her. Finally, say that you hope he or she enjoys the rest of the conference. If you are both going to attend a talk, then mention that, or make a plan to sit together. For example, “It’s been great talking with you. I wish we could keep talking but I need to look for a friend of mine who said he would be here. I hope our paths will cross again. Do you have a card? Here is my card too. I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference and I will look for you at the break out session tomorrow.”
Learn How to Think About People Who Are Disengaged or Distracted
People networking in conference settings can be put off by other people they meet who seem to be distracted, disengaged, or inattentive. These people tend to look over your shoulder to see if there is someone else they want to talk with, leaving you feeling unimportant. Perhaps they have a plan to meet someone else, or they have a specific agenda of their own, or they do not know how to network effectively and are uncomfortable themselves trying to talk with people they have not met before. How should you handle this kind of situation? The best way to think about it is to understand that it is not your fault, and to move on. Don’t take it personally. Try to find people you will be able to connect with more successfully.
Know What To Do About a Dominator
There are people who take center stage, suck up all the air, dominate a group, and keep other people from talking. They tend to be loud, and often interrupt. You might find that you are not getting a chance to talk because the dominator has the floor and is keeping all the attention. If you have a good point to make, try to jump in and share your ideas before you abandon the group; you might be surprised to discover that you can get into some fun conversations if you speak up. However, if you have tried, and the attempts are not working, then the best solution is to move on and find another person or group to interact with.
In the next blog post, we’ll discuss additional tips for making the most of your networking opportunities.