Think back to the last time you went to a networking event. How did you feel? Did you experience a sense of dread or wonder what you could say to be memorable? If you felt nervous about breaking into a conversation and would have preferred to spend most of the night sipping a drink in the corner of the room, you are not alone.
Networking is challenging. It can be difficult to build rapport out of thin air. As a coach, I often hear clients express their concerns that no one will hire them “after talking for a minute.” In my experience, that is true. Coming in with the purpose of getting hired in under a minute can make for uncomfortable and awkward situations. But networking is not a race — there is no prize for collecting business cards and no award for talking to the highest number of people in a night.
If we reframe how we look at networking, we can see that the real goal is to make genuine connections with other people, which is often said to be the first step in a long-term business strategy. Think of networking as the tip of the iceberg. As the other person warms up to you, you can further the conversation and build a deeper relationship over time. This might happen over days, weeks, months or even years. I’ve observed that if you focus more on long-term relationships and put less pressure on short-term business gains, you will find yourself in more pleasant and comfortable conversations.
Still, it can be challenging to start this conversation. What do you talk about? How do you build this mythical relationship? Here is a five-step guide to effective networking to help get you started.
1. Introduce yourself.
The introduction matters because it’s the first impression you make on someone else. What you say and how you say it are both important, so speak up, speak clearly, make eye contact, don’t rush, and don’t use filler words. Good posture, a smile and a firm handshake are great starters because they signal comfort and confidence (even if that’s far from your emotions at the time), and can help put the other person at ease. If you’re breaking into an ongoing conversation, be simple and direct. Try a phrase like, “Do you mind if I join you?” and then introduce yourself. To jump-start a conversation, throw out a question to the group (e.g., “What brought you here tonight?” Or, “How do you all know each other?”).
2. Ask questions.
Networking is not about playing “20 Questions,” but rather gaining an understanding of who the other person is. Instead of trying to be the most interesting person in the room, come in with the attitude that the other person is the most interesting one there. Think about developing a genuine curiosity about the other person. How did they get to where they are? Why are they fascinated by their industry? What do they find exciting in their role? What keeps them up at night? As you hear their responses, let your curiosity steer the conversation. I’ve found that most people are able to talk at length on a topic that excites them, so if you can tap into this, the conversation will not only flow more easily, but you will also become memorable for being sincerely interested in the other person. You might start jumping in with similar experiences or stories of your own, which leads to No. 3.
3. Make a connection.
Try to find something you have in common. This could be a small connection such as the weather, a shared commute or having attended the same event. Or you might have a deeper connection, such as knowing the same people, living in the same city or working in a similar industry. In my experience, finding something in common can help reduce the inherent apprehension many of us might harbor toward new people. With a connection, the other person is likely to become more engaged and willing to talk to you, and you might also feel more energized and excited to chat.
4. Explain what you do.
When you think about what you do, put it in simple terms. Take out all of the industry jargon and acronyms, and describe how you add value to someone else. Presumably, if someone is paying you for your work, you are providing something that is needed. Focus on who you help and how you do it. Keep it concise, but provide enough information that someone could ask follow-up questions.
5. Exit gracefully.
There is no need to pretend you spotted someone else you need to talk to or run to the bar for another drink in order to extract yourself from the conversation. If the conversation went well, you can exchange business cards and make a plan to keep in touch. And if it didn’t go well — which is OK because you likely won’t connect with everyone — it’s fine to cut your losses and move on. At a networking event, most attendees understand that you are there to meet multiple people, so it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “It was great chatting with you. I’m going to try to meet a few more people as well. Hope you enjoy your evening.”
We live in a relationship-driven world, and it is not uncommon to send or receive an email a few years after you met someone at an event. I have seen that if you can concentrate your efforts on building genuine and lasting relationships instead of focusing on the immediate business need, you will discover that your conversations will be more relaxed, fulfilling and gratifying. Over time, you will build your own network of people to whom you feel connected. And one day, you might realize you actually enjoy networking, too.