Let’s not beat around the bush: I’m an extrovert and everyone knows it. I thrive in social settings and relish opportunities to meet new people. That can make networking a breeze. But what if you’re an introvert and the thought of going to a professional meetup makes you break out in hives? Below are tips to ensure your next networking event is a success.
Mindset is everything. When you’re driving to the event, you want to feel excited, not nervous; nervous energy won’t set you up for success. One way to shift your mindset is to think about who you might meet. I have met some of my most important employees, dearest friends, and favorite Inspi Lab members at the most random networking events — including in an elevator, on a parking deck, and at a Christmas party. Not only may you meet your next collaborator, colleague, or friend, but focusing outside yourself helps you stay cool, calm, and collected. Tell yourself there is a unicorn or two in this room, and you’re going to find them. If you’re with a friend, see who finds the unicorn first.
Wear something you feel comfortable in and that feels like you. People you’ve already connected with are more likely to recognize you and reconnect if you look like yourself at these events. Definitely take cues on formality of dress from the invitation, but be yourself. If you are unsure of what to wear to a particular event, reach out to the organizer and ask for recommendations or Google photos from past events. If you’ve cultivated a personal brand (think of Seth Godin’s yellow glasses or Anna Wintor’s haircut and dark sunglasses), make sure you stay consistent.
Smile as much as humanly possible. Do this in the car as you drive to the event or in the elevator on the way to the room. Smiling changes your own mood — check out the research for proof! If you have time, do some power posing, as this will also give you a mental boost. One of the reasons people are often perceived as likeable or approachable is because they are smiling and have an inviting posture.
Know the context. It is hard to network at black-tie events when people just want to have a good time. If the event is more than 50% a party, then just relax and don’t stress it. Nothing is worse than being sold to at a gala or charity event. If you meet someone you really enjoyed, try setting up a coffee date or swapping numbers.
Check your breath. Bring these little toothbrushes in your car or purse, as well as small mints. Do not chew gum. You can chew it right until you walk in the door, but not during the event.
Grab a drink. I’m not saying you need liquid courage, but if you don’t know who to talk to, go to the bar or beverage station; there are always people hanging around and waiting for a drink (it makes a great ice breaker when you’re waiting on the same bartender or barista). But — this is key — DO NOT overdo the alcohol. The last thing anyone wants is alcohol fueled-embarrassment.
Lead with something different than “What do you do?”. In a society where we define ourselves by our jobs, this will set you apart and help make a more lasting connection. Try: “How long have you lived here?” or, for possible out-of-towners, “Do you live in ____?” If this is a personal event, ask how long they have known the host. Or, if you’re really at a loss for words, ask the person what brought them to this event.
Use good business card etiquette. Don’t hand out a business card unless it feels natural, they are handing you theirs, or they specifically ask for yours. You’ll know you’ve made a very good connection when the person puts your number in their phone. That is a new connection worth following up on.
Have good intentions. People sense when you are trying to sell them something or see them just as a stepping stone. Your intentions need to be about making new friends, connections, and acquaintances — not selling more items. Find another person in the room who is alone and introduce yourself. Make them feel comfortable and you’ll end up feeling comfortable too.
Maintain eye contact and focus. Make a conscious effort to not dart your eyes around the room if you’re engaged in conversation, regardless of what may be happening around you. Lock eyes with the person whom you are speaking. This is not easy and takes practice. If you must keep an eye out for someone you planned to meet, common courtesy asks that you to tell the person with whom you’re speaking. Otherwise, this body language is deflating and tells your conversation partner you’re looking for the next best thing.
Never, ever discuss confidential information at networking events or anywhere in public. No matter how big your city may be, you never know who is listening. You could offend someone or reveal information that is sensitive. Regardless, an inability to keep confidential information quiet is not the impression you need to make on other people. And you would never want someone to think of you as someone who spreads gossip — leave that to TMZ.
Always bring value. When I make a new connection, I often see if there is a way I can help them or connect them to someone who can. For example, if I meet someone new to town who is a female commercial real estate agent, I would tell her about CREW (Cape Fear Real Estate Women) and then follow up with an email introducing her to the current president. If you do something like this, you’ll build a more lasting connection and actually help someone. Be a fountain, not a drain.
Do in-person introductions. If you realize the person you’ve met just has to meet someone else in the room, go and make the introduction. This is my favorite thing to do at networking events. I love when I can make a connection in the moment!
Don’t go to networking events to spend time with your friends. A clique in the corner that stays there the whole time will not be viewed favorably, so say hello to your pals and then hang out later. The goal of a networking event is to get to know more people and expand your relationships, not catch up with your BFF. Remember you are there to find a unicorn, so start shaking hands.
Extend the offer of help. My friend Zach always ends our conversations with the question, “Is there any way I can help you with something right now?” He not only genuinely means it, but it opens up a dialogue that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Use body positioning to invite others into a conversation. Bringing a colleague or friend into a conversation is easier when your body is angled, versus squared off and face to face. Think triangle positioning, not a sandwich. However, if you are really hitting it off with your new connection and don’t want to be interrupted, try the face to face; this will make others less likely to interrupt.
Know how to exit with grace. Exiting a conversation can be difficult, especially if you are caught by a real talker.
Keep your body angled so your back is not against a wall and you can slip away.
Excuse yourself to use the bathroom; hopefully you won’t be followed. Do actually make your way to the restroom.
You can fake needing to take a call outside. Same rule applies as bathrooms: Do actually go outside for a quick second.
The softest approach is to go get another drink, however, they are likely to go with you if they lack the self-awareness that the conversation has come to an end.
There are times there won’t be a break in conversation and you just have to interrupt. If you have a time vampire on your hands, get out of that conversation sooner than later. Time is precious, and they are likely to behave this way routinely.
Fortune is in the follow-up. Let’s say you run into an old friend and you have a great conversation. Once back in the car, shoot them a text or email saying how much you appreciate them or referencing an inside joke or just saying how fun it was to see them. Give yourself 3-5 extra minutes in your car before leaving the parking lot to think about the right follow-up.
Take notes before you forget. If you have epic success and leave with a ton of business cards, sit in your car and write a few quick notes about each person. You’ll be more likely to remember them and why you connected. If you need to follow up with anyone, put a reminder in your calendar ASAP so you don’t forget.
When it comes down to it, networking like a pro is about preparation, mindset, focus, and action. Try for positive energy, focus on the person you’re talking to, be aware of your body language, and make a concerted effort to meet new people. You can do this, and with these pro tips, it should be easier than ever.