It can feel daunting to attend a networking event. You might walk into the room and not know anybody and flounder. Even if you do recognise some people you might not know how to approach them. Or what to say if they are already speaking with other people. However, there are some simple skills you can acquire to help you navigate the awkwardness of networking events, and enable you to make fruitful connections and introductions.
Networking is an inescapable part of business life. Whether its an event organised by your own organisation or an event for people from different employers, almost everyone will need to negotiate the pitfalls of participating at some point. It’s a myth to think that some people are born with the ability to form effective, influential connections with very little effort. For sure, some people do have the handy ability to strike up a conversation with seemingly anyone at the drop of a hat. But, in reality, the skills they have honed to make their craft look effortless are actually exactly that: a set of learned skills that they have worked on and developed over a long period of time. And the good news is that there are a number of different ways to engage effectively with people at networking events that don’t involve the art of establishing rapport in a matter of seconds.
I take the view that the art of networking is a set of learned skills which requires the ability to get someone’s attention within a short period of time, and to engage them in a dialogue about issues of mutual interest. It doesn’t require that you ‘build rapport’ straight away, although it is great when that happens, but does need you to recognise the moment for what it is: an opportunity to connect with someone you don’t know very well and who doesn’t see you at work every day. Consequently, they don’t know your strengths, won’t understand what you can offer unless you tell them, and can’t know much about what you do or how you do it. Equally, they may well want to tell you about their work and may also have the potential awkwardness you feel about ‘selling yourself,’ or appearing to ‘blow your own trumpet’. There is likely to be nothing fundamentally wrong with what you want to say, but adjustments to how you say it may be beneficial: where to start your input, the emphasis of what you are saying, how you frame your input to make it directly relevant to the other person, and how you end the dialogue are all important learned skills. Here are some tips to get you off on the crucial right footing at the start of the networking conversation:
Firstly, have a clear goal in mind before you attend the event. What do you want to talk about and with whom? What further contact would you like to have with each of these people after the event, and in what form (email, phone call, skype, face to face meeting)? By when would you like to have this contact?
Secondly, resolve in your own mind whether you prefer to initiate contact and are comfortable approaching your potential contacts yourself, or whether you prefer to respond. It’s a continuum, so some of you will be at one end, some at the other, and some of you may find yourself with no preference either way. Play to your strengths. Some of you will be fine walking up to other people and saying hello. But if you’d prefer to be introduced to someone you want to speak with rather than to approach them yourself, ask one of the organisers to make the introduction for you. You could mention your request to them before the event. Another option could be to contact the person you want to network with ahead of the meeting, letting them know you’d value time with them and will be looking out for them at the event.
Thirdly, think about your opening remarks and practise them before the event. Being clear about what you will say first of all at the start of the conversation means that you can use your energy to connect with the person effectively rather than looking for your words. Whatever you say, say it in a confident way, conveying warmth and interest. Maintain eye contact, smile, shake hands if that feels natural for you. These opening seconds are important in setting an open tone, and in getting the dialogue off on the right footing.
Next, consider what can you offer each of the people you’ve identified in step one that might be of value to them? If you aren’t sure whether you do or don’t have anything of use to them, you can always ask them once the dialogue has begun. ‘I don’t know whether this is of interest to you, but….’ is an overture that tells them immediately that you are thinking about them and interested in what they might value. Equally, you might approach them because they have something you’d value. You could say: ‘My ears pricked up when you said……..’
Now you can use your knowledge of your subject matter, the facts and data you have to hand, your opinions and your questions, and your listening skills just as you would in any other workplace conversation.