Depending on your personality type, an invitation to a networking event is either an exciting opportunity or the bane of your existence. Some people—usually the extroverts—enjoy the challenge of meeting new people and connecting with others, whereas the rest of us—usually introverts—shudder at the thought of engaging in small talk with random strangers. Couple that fear with the aggressive passing out of business cards, and suddenly you are feeling less like forging professional contacts and more like running for the exit.
As unappealing as networking may be for some, it truly is a worthwhile opportunity to connect with others who share in some aspect of your work. Some people think that networking is only necessary when they are looking for a new job. But networking is also valuable while you are happily settled in your current job. You may meet someone who can put you in touch with a potential new client, or you may be able to help someone find a mentor.
Networking is all about expanding, well . . . your network. And that’s almost never a bad thing, whether you own your own business, work for a large corporation, or work in nonprofit. And contrary to popular belief, it is possible to become a great networker, says John Corcoran of Smart Business Revolution. We typically believe that people are either born natural networkers, or they aren’t. But, in reality, becoming a great networker is a skill that you can learn. Just follow this advice.
Some people take a soul-crushing, utilitarian approach to networking. Each conversation seems painfully contractual and focused on the underlying “What can you do for me?” subtext. But remember, collecting business cards is meaningless if you haven’t connected with the owner of that card. Being authentic while networking will go a long way.
Self-proclaimed introvert Susan Cain shares the strategies that have helped her embrace networking in her New York Times bestseller, Quiet, and her blog, Quiet Revolution. Instead of feeling pressured to meet as many people as possible, she focuses on finding what she calls “kindred spirits,” people she genuinely enjoys speaking with. You’re much more likely to feel at ease talking to other friendly people than finding yourself trapped in a game of one-upmanship with someone. Adopting the mindset that networking can be an opportunity for you to meet like-minded people will make it much more enjoyable.
Read the Room
A quick way to zero in on potential kindred spirits is to read the room. Anne Baber, a networking consultant, recently shared with the Wall Street Journal tips and tricks to help you identify who at the networking event might be a good person to strike up a conversation with. She suggests avoiding groups of networkers who are standing in a closed circle and facing each other. If it seems like they are having an intense, in-depth conversation, they aren’t likely to welcome a new person to the conversation. Instead, look for a group of people loosely gathered. Or look for a few people standing side by side and facing outward. These people are signaling that they are open to others joining their conversation.
Baber also observes that if you make eye contact with someone in the group, and he or she smiles, it’s usually a good sign that you will be welcomed into the conversation. Also, look for people with open body language: hands at their sides, shoulders open, and standing tall. Avoid people who are hunched over or standing with their arms crossed. These people are signaling that they are not as open to a new conversation.
Have a Plan
John Corcoran, a lawyer who runs the blog Smart Business Revolution, recommends setting goals for yourself before you go to the event. For example, “I want to make three new connections by the end of the event.” If the thought of spending four hours talking with relative strangers is just too much to handle, Corcoran suggests giving yourself permission to leave at a certain time. For example, “I will stay for two hours and try to talk to at least three new people.”
To help you start conversations with ease, Cain suggests preparing a few go-to topics beforehand. These will help you find common interests. Cain suggests talking about your thoughts on the event’s speaker or interesting restaurants and places you’ve recently been to in the city where the event is held. Prepping five of these go-to topics will help you feel more confident about the event being a success for you.
Go Deeper Than Small Talk
Small talk definitely has its place. But some find small talk constraining and limiting. Cain describes having a lightbulb moment when she realized that she enjoyed networking events much more when the conversation went below the surface. She enjoyed going deeper with the people she met by asking thought-provoking questions such as, “How does your work relate to your life path?” and “How do the relationships you make at work relate to that path?” Other questions you could ask include, “How did you find yourself in XYZ industry?”; “What’s a typical day like for you?”; and “What do you find most rewarding about your work?” Taking the conversation beyond the weather will help you establish a more genuine connection.
Practicing your listening skills will also help you in steering the conversation toward more meaningful topics. Corcoran says that people who are good listeners are viewed as good conversationalists. Using strategies such as adopting open body language, validating their responses, and asking open-ended questions (questions that require more than a yes or no response) will help show that you are an attentive listener.
A networking event doesn’t have to be a chore or something that you avoid at all costs. Setting goals for yourself and coming prepared will increase the likelihood that you might actually (gasp!) enjoy a networking event. Give yourself time to practice these expert-recommended tips. Over time, you’ll find a formula of tools that works well for you. Soon, you’ll be able to upgrade your status to one of those people who seems to “just know” how to work a room.
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