How to Survive and Thrive at a Business Networking Event (A Guide for Awkward People)

Photo credit: FollowUpSuccess.com

Photo credit: FollowUpSuccess.com

Networking is very important for success. This is pretty common knowledge. It’s not what you know as much as it is who you know. LinkedIn and other social networks are good up to a point, but nothing can replace planting your mug in front of folks.

Up until about 6 or so months ago I hated going to “networking” meetings. I was MORTIFIED at the thought of
  • Awkwardly making small talk with complete strangers
  • Ending up in awkward conversational pauses
  • Getting caught in conversations with people who aren’t that interesting
  • Not knowing what to talk about
  • Not knowing anybody
  • Possibly being the guy standing alone in the corner looking at and swirling their drink

It’s an entirely nerve wracking experience.

Through a lot of research and sucking it up and attending some of these things, I have learned a thing or two. I am now perfectly comfortable in these types of environments.

So, in an effort to reach out to those who need to do this in-person networking type stuff, but have all of the same fears that I did, I am making this guide to assuage those anxieties and give you some tools to function well at these type of things.

I am by no means a master networker/connector/anything like that, but I have been in the shoes of people who are terrified by the prospect of having to attend something like this and want to help.

I will put forth that I am working from a base line of general extroversion and thriving pretty well in small groups, even if it is strangers (events with 7 or more people still intimidated me to the point of not attending). I get that I was a little higher up on a comfort scale than many who will have to attend these things, but we all start from somewhere right?

1. Many of the people at these events feel the exact same way

Yes.

The number one thing that I learned from looking up the abundance of articles on how to cope with these anxieties was that I’m obviously not the only one who has them. Most of the people at the event that you are attending aren’t social butterflies who can shake hands, slap backs, and work a room like a politician during election season.  A lot of them have the same anxieties about working a room full of strangers that you do.

Take solace in that. You are not alone.

2. Consistency in attendance. Don’t try to meet everyone in one night.

A popular misconception about these events is that you have to “make the sale” right then and there. You have to go there, pitch your product/service, and hand out business cards to everybody in that room before the nights done.

It’s not a one and done prospect.

Your best bet is to choose 1 or 2 groups/organizations, show up to all of the events, talk to a few people at each event until either the event is over or the conversation dies (more on striking up conversation later), leave.

If you hit it off, or have something further to talk about with those folks, then follow up after the meeting and set something up (more on that later). If you don’t have any interest in a relationship with them, then don’t follow up. Say hi to them at the next event. You should try to remember people’s names (I am not known for being good at this), but if you don’t, it’s fine. They probably didn’t remember your either. And if they do, it means you were memorable and interesting.

Hopefully the event has name tags that you can try to subtly check out.

At the next event, do the same exact thing. Have good conversations with a few people. Follow up or don’t.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Over time you’ll have met several people at these events and a lot of people will know you.

The important thing is to not spread yourself too thin over several random groups. I already sort of have issues with this because I have real estate investor groups as well as history-based groups that I try to balance, but they can be somewhat related since I work for a General Contractor.

 

 

3. How the f*** do I get into a group of people to talk with them?

This is always one that made me feel the most awkward. A couple of people or a group of people is standing around having a conversation and you don’t want to just stand there and be weird.
Here’s a simple guideline

1) If the group is a closed circle or two people are facing each other square, then they’re really deep into a conversation, do not go in.

2) If there is an open space in a group, or two people are standing and talking in sort of like a V with their bodies angled out into the space in an open sort of posture, then they are INVITING somebody else to join.

Just stand in that spot and start listening. It’s not awkward, that’s just how you insert yourself into these conversations. Eventually somebody will introduce themselves to you which is your invitation to meet the group, shake hands, exchange names, and make with the chit-chat (more on what to chit-chat about later). If no one introduces themselves to you (odds are slim that they won’t) wait until a conversational lull, throw out a hand and make an introduction.

It definitely feels weird at first, but when you try it once and see that it works you’ll be like “Oh…. that was easy.”

You just have to get over yourself.

Personally, I prefer groups of 3 or more. The conversation is less likely to die down when there are more people.

One thing that I always try to do as a former Networking-ophobic is to always make space for someone who even kind of looks like they are alone and trying to join the conversation circle. Even going so far as to invite them in.

It’s actually a really interesting dynamic. The group will expand into a circle, and as it reaches critical mass to where there’s like 8 people in a giant circle, side conversations begin and the circles divide like a single celled organism splitting itself.

If you see a person standing by themselves they are fair game. Go and strike up a conversation about whatever. If anything, they may be that awkward person who isn’t sure how to approach people and you have made the event much better for them. And they might have a lot to offer and be an interesting person.

4. What do I talk about? NOT yourself.

What am I suppose to talk about with these people? Well, you aren’t suppose to talk. People don’t really care about what you have to say, but they LOVE talking about themselves. Just ask them questions about them. Always ask open-ended questions

Here’s some questions:

  • What brings you here today/tonight? This is pretty obvious. The one thing that you and this other person have in common is that you are both there for some reason. This can lead to all sorts of off-shoots of topics.
  • What do you do? : Basic questions. It’s a baseline. Sometimes they can give you enough with this where you can riff of of with questions for a while. For example “I’m an architect” can be followed up by “What sort of buildings to you design?” “What got you into that?” “Where did you study” and you can just go on asking questions.
  • Where are you from?: You could share something you know about it and ask them about that, talk about a place that’s somewhat close and ask if they’ve been, you can ask why they left, where they went to college, etc.

The important thing to remember is to have a genuine interest in the person’s story. Personally, I love knowing people’s stories and all about them. You can ask a ton of questions and go pretty deep without touching on sensitive subject matter. If they mention that their parents passed away, I wouldn’t ask “how?” Or something along those lines.

This is a basic tenet of the seminal self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It’s a classic and everybody should have read this at least once.

Also, if the person really has nothing interesting you can probe about… see the section on ending conversations.

Of note, unless it’s a political event, or a religious event, don’t talk politics, religion, or anything that could possibly put you at odds with someone there on a personal level.

5. Conversation Enders

A lot of time you get caught up in a situation where you guys have nothing left to talk about. You can both tell that the conversation is ending, but not quite sure how to separate.

You look around to try to bring somebody else in to freshen up the conversation…nobody.

This simple phrase works wonders:

“Well, it was great talking to you!” And move on.

Yes, it’s that simple. You are both looking for a way to end the conversation and move on to something else, it just takes someone with the balls to acknowledge that the conversation is dead and rip the band-aid off.

You will be relieved, they will be relieved.

If you want to be non-confrontational about it, or this seems too sudden then the following solutions are available to you. (These also work if it’s someone who is just yammering about bullsh*** or is uninteresting).

1) “It was nice talking, I have to get with so-and-so to follow up about (X)” And go join another group or person. Even if you don’t know them or have anything to talk about, just start a new conversation. It’s much better if it’s somebody you’ve met before though, so you can catch up.

2) “I have to run to the restroom.” Go to the restroom. If you don’t have to go, just look in the mirror and make sure your tie’s straight. Also, maybe wash your hands since you’ve probably just shaken a bunch of hands.

You can only go to the well with this one so many times before people have seen you run to the bathroom 4 times in an hour.

3) “I’m out, I need to go grab a drink” Keep a small amount of drink in your glass, finish it, and use the old bar excuse. Get caught up in a conversation with someone else at the bar.

Once again, I emphasize, everybody is at these things to network, so most people will be on the same page with you of trying to talk to more than one person, or ending a conversation that’s going nowhere.

6. How to Follow Up 

Okay, so you’ve made a connection.You and the other person either get along great, or can potentially do business.

This is probably the most important part.

Admittedly, since I’m new to the whole networking event thing, I have substantially less experience with follow up. This is also an area that I need to work on getting better at. Thus, I present to you this Forbes article that I have found to be accurate based on experience and podcasts such as the Art of Charm that I have listened to.

http://www.forbes.com/sites/yec/2014/09/23/how-to-master-the-art-of-networking-follow-up/#1d206c60602c

7. Be a Connector

If you have met someone earlier in the event, or during a different event for the group and meet someone who they might have a common interest with, introduce them! Even if you don’t connect with these folks automatically, they will remember that you are the one who introduced them. Even if they don’t associate their acquaintance with you, you have helped some people out and have built up some good karma.

8. Don’t Drink Too Much

Enjoying a cocktail or two is fine, but don’t be that guy/girl who gets drunk to deal with the fact that they can’t handle social situations. It’s a social lubricant up to a point…. break up your drinks with water to hydrate.

That’s about the gist of it. The most important thing to remember is that anything that you’re feeling as far as anxiety, awkwardness, whatever.. you’re not the only one.

And once you are comfortable moving about a room at a networking event, be sure to make room for or talk to the person standing by themselves awkwardly staring down at their drink and introduce them to some other folks.