Today, I went to my first networking event in a looong time. As in ‘I-knew-zero-people’ type of event. As I suffered 1 hour in traffic to be 40 minutes late for an event I thought would last 90 (luckily wrong), I wondered why I was going. I always dread these events. But as I drove back home, I felt somewhat proud. Networking has always been difficult for me, and I came out having properly spoken to 5 people. It may not seem like a lot to you if you are a networking expert, but for me, more than 1 is above target!
As I drove, I remembered this post from 4 years ago, on the stigma of networking. I think I have come a long way in making these events more productive. On reflection, it is probably time I write another article on it. So what started as a short linkedin post is now about to become a lessons learnt piece.
My 5 (or 7) cents
1. Only go to events you are truly interested in.
Why? Because it will make it easier to strike a common conversation. If you attend an event that starts with an utterly boring topic or speaker, or something that really has no hook for you, it is dreadful to then have to talk about it with people you don’t know. You can try and fake it (which will probably be visible), or you can try and be honest, incurring the risk everyone else enjoyed it and you are the one that was whining about it.
2. Speak to at least to one new person
Perhaps you want to have a higher goal on that, this is me! After the event I proudly called Hubby B to tell him I spoke to 5 people I had never seen before. And I even exchanged business cards – just the fact I remembered to take them was a total win! But the fact I got them off my pocket not apologising or worried about being the different one made me beam with pride. And don’t worry, I went new school too, I used Linkedin. For someone who has trouble remembering names, I have to have all the tools! If you think I am exaggerating on my low goal, you should seen Hubby’s B surprised face at my stats! He was proud (and yes, his average is probably 20+ per event, so we are all different)
3. Embrace being alone
And avoid hiding behind your phone! If you decide to go at it alone, stick to it. No pretending you have urgent messages to attend, no dealing with emails to avoid looking up and finding a stranger. And absolutely no instagram scrolling!
The other element of embracing being alone is the way you walk across the room. Many times in the past I walked past people assertively, as if I am meeting someone on the other side, when in fact I am going nowhere (recognise the trick?). Slowly, I am trying to be in the discomfort that I don’t really have anyone to walk up to so I walk slowly and observe groups to assess if I am able to join in. Which leads me to my next one.
4. Approach smaller groups
But with a nuance – ideally choose those where people know each other but don’t look like life long friends. When I go to an event with a friend, chances are, we went to hear a speaker and then want to spend most of the time chatting to each other and catching up if we have not met in a long time (highly likely in our ‘busy bee’ lives). I understand it may seem pointless to attend. networking events in those circumstances, but friends do whatever it takes!
As such, I would recommend listening in for conversations (and body language) of those that are just getting to know each other and, as such, are likely to welcome you and ask you questions as well. Everyone will be in a similar playing field and you will be less of an outsider.
5. Use the bar (or equivalent)
No, I don’t mean get wasted so you can strike a conversation with a stranger. I mean use the bar as a good place to start a conversation with someone alone, even if it is about the food. When people are getting drinks, they are often momentarily split from the group they are with and therefore it can be easier to create a small conversation.
You may find that the person is still wanting to go back to their original group, but if you have connected, they may even be your pass in beating your goal of meeting more than 1 new person. An introduction goes along way in getting other people to engage and be interested, even if just met at the bar. And you are wondering about how to even strike that first conversation!
6. Stay on what matters
Avoid the weather or the busyness as key topics. I know that if you live in London, weather or tube strikes are all time favourites. Conplaining about traffic or mundane things is also off limits. If all you have are throw away comments on things without consequence, then no wonder your newly met stranger will speedily retreat to their original group (without your company).
I am not saying with this that you start a conversation about the war, inflation or world hunger relief (unless naturally you are in a conference about the topic). Remember point 1? If you choose events you really care about attending, you will easily find the topics you care about discussing. Seek to bond on the common topic you are there for and talk about things you care about. The person on the other side may be there for the same reason, one would hope!
In case you are wondering, think twice about whether you will go into politics, religion or sports teams. Those can create antagonism in the group, especially if you find yourself in an isolated position.
7. Be curious
My last point is ‘ask questions’. Have true curiosity as you are talking to someone on how empathy can be created. As you ask questions, don’t make it feel like an interrogation room, but rather offer empathy along the way. ‘You me, same same’ CIA approach. Finding points of commonality will make the conversation flow much more easily, as the reality is that trust builds up on empathy and commonality. I jumped at the opportunity to talk about the love of skiing today, easy one for me!
It will also have the huge benefit of making the conversation more memorable, both for you and your stranger. That means 10x more efficacy if you later send a linkedin request with a note about the conversation. And if like me you remember no names or jobs, interests are definitely something much easier to remember. Ask genuinely, and you may find new topics of interest, people you know in common, or shared life circumstances!
Not expert advice
To be clear, this is no expert advice. As most things in this blog. But it is indeed a reflection on 18 years of attending all sorts of events (and dreading those), peaking today at choosing to attend an event on my own and remembering well the 5 new people I met! I am (almost) ready for the next one!