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Forging Connections Authentically and With Confidence
What happens when you show up at a conference, a careers fair, or a roundtable event? Do you dive straight into the crowd and start mingling? Do you gently work your way in? Or, do you back into a corner and break out in a cold sweat?
For many people, networking is a terrifying, disabling prospect. This may be because they’re introspective, introverted, unconfident, shy, hindered by bad experiences, or simply new to the whole experience. Whatever the cause a fear of networking can be hard to overcome once it’s established.
The good news is that none of us are born with a natural talent for networking, even the people who really enjoy it. Networking isn’t an “innate” ability but a skill that anyone can learn. You don’t have to be a smooth operator or an extravert go-getter to be successful; you just need to use the right strategies.
Networking is an important skill to have and, if you can overcome your anxieties, your professional life will benefit from it. So, get ready to step out of your comfort zone, and read on.
How to Network Despite Your Misgivings
A good starting point is to adopt a strategy for your networking, and to work through the five practical steps outlined in our article, Professional Networking . These will give you a reassuring and manageable structure that you can rely on. They will also help you to understand the benefits of networking better.
Moving beyond these basic steps, there are 10 more actions, outlined below, that you can take to turn networking from a nerve-wracking experience to a highly useful business tool.
1. Be Selective
Not all networking events are equally important, and you don’t need to attend every one in your calendar, or speak to everyone at the ones that you do attend! Instead, focus on meeting the right people, at the right time and place, and discussing issues that fit your workplace priorities. For example, would an event focused on specific aspects of electronic communication be more useful than a general “communicate better with your colleagues” gathering?
2. Do Your Homework
Try to get a list of attendees before going to a networking event. You can then focus on the people that you’d most like to meet, and research their interests and careers. You might even be able to connect with them and arrange to have a quick chat or meeting at the event.
Having even this small degree of contact with people can make approaching them in person less daunting.
Browsing people’s social media feeds to research their careers and interests is a great way to come up with inspired icebreakers, talking points and questions.
3. Set Goals
Set yourself one or two realistic goals so that you can network in a targeted way, with a clear vision of what you want to achieve. You might want to speak to a particular person, to make one or two meaningful connections that could be useful in the coming months, or to gain intelligence about a particular product.
Don’t be too ambitious at first. Remember that you don’t need to shake every hand in the room, and you don’t need to stay until the end of the event. You can leave after half an hour if you’re done, and look back at a successful day’s networking.
4. Consider Conversation
Many people worry about what they’re going to say at an event. But, while you can’t script an entire conversation, you can prepare a few questions and try to memorize an introduction, so that you don’t end up standing next to someone in silence.
Always have an informal opener in mind. For example, “So, what brings you here?” or, “That was a great talk. What did you make of it?” Have a short two- or three-sentence introduction (your name, occupation, organization, and reason for attending) ready, and you’ll likely feel less panic over what to say when you first meet someone.
Don’t worry about being clever or over-complicating things with an elevator pitch . It’s more important to simply say “hello” and to establish some rapport than it is to go through your entire résumé.
A few pre-prepared, open-ended questions to ask once you’re past the introductions will put the spotlight on the other person, and help you to relax and listen as he or she talks. This ability to be a careful listener is the common trait that links all great networkers.
The roles will reverse at some point, so consider what you’ll need to share about yourself – such as what you’re looking for or what help you need – and what your responses to likely questions will be when you’re put on the spot. Practicing small talk and answering questions will help you to steer conversations with confidence.
5. Arrive Early
Walking into an event when conversations have already started and groups have formed can knock even the most seasoned networkers off course.
If you’re one of the first people to arrive, you can enjoy the relative peace and quiet, and settle in before the real work starts. You can get comfortable with your surroundings, identify a good place to talk, go over a few opening lines in your head, and strike up a conversation with the organizers and other early arrivers at a less pressured pace.
6. Take a Buddy
A conference buddy – a friend or colleague – can help you to break the ice with strangers, introduce you to connections of his own, and provide reassurance if your confidence slips. Moreover, with two of you there, you’ll be able to generate your own conversation circles.
If you are attending an event with a colleague, don’t cling together too closely – you’ll quickly defeat the purpose of networking if you do. Try to mingle as individuals for some of the time, coming back together when conversations with other people naturally end.
7. Send the Right Signals
Fear is often revealed in our body language , so it’s crucial to loosen up and send the right signals. You may be shaking inside or wishing that you were someplace else but, if you staymindfully present and give the impression of confidence through your body language, you’ll look open and engaged. You’ll also encourage others to approach you, saving you the discomfort of approaching them.
In general, try to look relaxed, warm and alert, and remember to smile. Maintain an open body posture (arms uncrossed), make eye contact with people who you want to meet, and stand close to any groups that you want to join. Hold a cup of coffee or a conference program to keep your hands still, and put away your smartphone so that you’re not distracted.
Equally, look out for other people whose body language is open and approachable, rather than for those in close-knit, huddled circles or groups.
8. Be Realistic
The pressure to perform at networking events can feel intense, so remind yourself that networking is a two-way street. The responsibility to fill any gaps in the conversation doesn’t rest with you alone. Try too hard, or act inauthentically, and you may end up saying something that makes you cringe. You’ll likely then berate yourself, and reinforce your own dislike of networking.
Also, it’s sometimes better to be open about how intimidated you feel. Doing so invites the other person to empathize with you, and it can even help you to forge a connection. It’s quite likely that she’ll be feeling the same as you, anyway!
Always remember that networking doesn’t have to be perfect. Some events will be better and more useful than others. If you accept this, you’ll be able to view less successful ones as opportunities to learn and grow.
In “Stand Out Networking,” psychologist Robert Cialdini notes how the most effective way to make a good impression is to find common ground. Shared interests provide a great, authentic foundation for productive conversations.
9. Take a Decompression Break
Networking events can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining. When you feel your energy levels ebbing, it’s important to take time out to breathe.
Go some place that suits you, anywhere you can get a change of scenery and some peace. Freshen up in the restroom, dart into a side hall, enjoy a power nap in your car, grab a coffee, go for a short walk, or head back to your hotel room for a while. A short break can help you to recharge, reflect and rejuvenate.
10. Know When to Call Time
Some people get so anxious to make a good impression that they drag conversations out for too long. Others feel so nervous that they talk non-stop, and they end up unintentionally dominating a conversation.
A key skill for any networker is knowing when it’s time to move on. Watch the clock, trust your gut instinct, and keep an eye on the other person’s body language for signs that he wants to finish, such as a closed body position or glancing to different parts of the room. Aim for short, memorable conversations .
When your discussion reaches a natural end, smile, exchange business cards, and set a time to meet again.
Networking takes many of us out of our comfort zones, but it is possible to overcome our fears when we use the right strategies.
To overcome a fear of networking:
- Be selective about the events that you attend.
- Research other attendees’ backgrounds to get useful information.
- Set realistic, meaningful goals.
- Think about what you’ll say, and listen to the responses.
- Arrive early so that you can assess your surroundings.
- Bring a colleague or friend for support.
- Mind your body language, and try to keep an open posture.
- Go easy on yourself.
- Take time out during the event to “recharge your batteries.”
- Know when to move on from a conversation.