Networking events are those special times in life when people gather together, generally in large numbers, to chitchat, exchange contact info, and eat unhealthy, unidentifiable fried food in unnatural quantities.
How is a networking hater to survive, let alone thrive?Networking — necessary evil or wildly misunderstood? Bestselling author and self-proclaimed introvert Devora Zack puts an end to the misguided assumptions that drive our aversion to networking. Instead, she suggests leaning into your unique strengths and practicing intentional strategies to create meaningful relationships that can take your career to the next level.
When I go to an event, it is either an unavoidable obligation or because I coerced myself. I am frequently pleased with the results, yet I head there under duress.
To me, this is like morning exercise. I’ve been an early bird at the gym for years. I trick myself—a clue that I’m not so bright. I tell myself things like, I’ll just drive slowly past it today. Once in the vicinity, I rally. The cycle starts all over again the next day. As I resentfully bash the snooze button, I curse myself. I vow I’ll never work out again. Afterward? I feel like a million bucks. Repeat.
Don’t wait until you are all psyched to go networking.
Dillydallying until the mood strikes means waiting forever.
You’ve got to kick yourself out that door. Once there, armed with your secret prep, percolate, and pace (yourself) strategy, you’ll do fine. No wimps.
Dragging Yourself There
There’s a big corporate event tonight. Attendance is not technically required, although you are expected to go. The change of clothes you brought from home hangs from a hook on your office door. Every time someone comes in or goes out, the garment bag swings, drawing your attention back to the event looming near the end of an exhausting week.
By six o’clock your mind is buzzing from the day’s collective sensory bombardment. Miscellaneous meetings, a presentation, the noisy lunchroom, spontaneous hallway exchanges, and a conference call have left you wiped out. You want to decompress. Your mind scans a gamut of excuses, hoping to discover a legitimate reason to bail. You idly begin organizing your files, a task you normally avoid. Now you’re going to be late. Realizing it is hopeless, you put on your evening outfit and trudge to the event.
Entering the networking venue, you see unknown people milling around with nametags already peeling off their business suit lapels. The volume is high, and the mood seems cheerful—in direct contrast to your own state. People are upbeat and laughing, perusing picked over tapas platters. You wonder how much more time is required to fulfill your obligation to attend.
An initial search for officemates proves futile. After being in attendance for three minutes, you hide in a corner to check messages. Another tedious night of networking—or the failure thereof—begins. How about a do-over? Networking, take two.
Preregister. Commit in advance. You’ll be less likely to back down, particularly if you paid to attend. Plus, registration fees often increase at the door. Signing up early also ensures entry to popular events. Not to mention you’ll score a professionally rendered preprinted nametag.
Volunteer. Inquire in advance whether you can help in some capacity. Many networking-haters are most comfortable when in a designated, structured role. Volunteering provides you with a specific reason to engage with others, rather than poking around for small talk. Bonus: you position yourself as helpful.
Attire. Weigh the value of comfort versus fashion. Will that flowy scarf, wafting about, become distracting? Do your feet hurt after fifteen minutes in platform heels? Do your contact lenses dry out, making eyeglasses the wiser choice? Is that snappy jacket a tad snug these days? What image do you want to convey? Millennials in particular are at risk of donning overly casual attire at business events. Consider dressing up a notch.
Go with a pal. An ally can transform the experience. Make plans to attend with a networking-adverse colleague. Take turns venturing out and reporting back while giving each other mini networking “assignments.” A shared positive attitude and sense of humor will attract others to you both.
Clarify goals. Why are you attending? Set modest, actionable goals, such as meeting two new people. Be realistic.
Arrive early. If you are hesitant to attend an event, why get there first? Because it is better to show up when there are only a few, scattered people than face a noisy crowd, all packed together. Gatherings are cozier and calmer near the beginning. Arriving early also presents an opportunity to see if you can help out.
Take a moment. Center internally and refresh externally. Look in a mirror — best-case scenario is a well-appointed powder room; backup plan is your phone’s camera. Check yourself out. Make sure you are at your best, or at least not entirely disheveled. Pop a breath mint. Take a couple of deep, restorative breaths.
Check out the nametags. Upon arrival, glance over the nametags of attendees, often arranged near the entrance in alphabetical order. An early arrival ensures that most have not yet been picked up, allowing you to anticipate attendance of those you know or want to meet. It also provides I-time before crowds ensue.
Scan the room. Position yourself somewhere between the outskirts and the inner circles to obtain a good view of the maximum number of attendees. No mathematical formulas are necessary. Conduct a slow visual scan of the room. Look for those you know and those who, for whatever reason, seem approachable.
See how you are being gently eased into actual human contact?
Be an open target. Make yourself approachable. Consciously maintain a pleasant expression. Standing-only tables are magnets for solitary folks open to conversation. Find an open table where you can comfortably hang out or join another solo whose nonverbal cues indicate he is open to company.
Visit the information tables. Event organizers often display information about products or services. Perusing pamphlets allows you to learn about your hosts, come up with relevant conversation starters, and interact with those working the tables.
Make eye contact. Eye contact conveys an interest in others, increasing their positive perception of you. It’s a nonverbal way to initiate connections, especially when accompanied by a friendly smile. Restrain yourself from glancing around at the crowd while engaged in conversation. Eye contact disciplines you to pay attention, edging out unrelated thoughts and negative self-talk. Just don’t overdo it with a scary stare-down.
Acknowledge and thank staff. This extends beyond those running the event to include bartenders, coat room attendees, and anyone else working the venue. It is good form to show appreciation. Be prepared to tip. An open bar does not necessarily cover tips.
Get in line. Lines provide a fine alternative to standing around alone. Conversation openers with fellow line-mates include asking about work, the origin of an interesting name, or what brought them to the event. You even earn a prize: whatever you were standing in line for. Completing your time in the line provides a built-in closer—exchange contact information and be on your way.
Be gracious. Before getting a drink, ask whether anyone nearby would like something too. When standing in line for a buffet, hand a plate to the person behind you and offer to let him go ahead. You get the idea.
Note the unusual. Notable accessories or unique styles invite conversation. People tend to purchase and wear distinct items to make a statement. You can’t go wrong complimenting and inquiring about these items, as long as you keep it real.
Linger by the crudités. Food stations are a fine jump start for conversation while also providing a temporary place and purpose. As others arrive, many one-liners are at your disposal, such as:
- Nice choice! (Only if there are more than two food groups)
- Do you know what type of cheese this is? (Best if not pointing to cheddar)
- What do you think of the freshly made pasta?
- Such a creative dessert display—what’s your favorite?
Take small enough bites to be able to respond to others without an awkward time lapse for chewing. And choking is a major faux pas.
Focus on others. Chatting with strangers can be challenging. The most common reason being I have no idea what to talk about! Get this: you don’t have to! Displaying an interest in others makes you more likable than regaling them with details of your latest exploits. Jackpot! Thoughtful questions are the place to start. Some sample openers:
- What do you like best about your work?
- Are you working on any interesting projects?
- What’s been the highlight of your year?
- Want to join me in checking out the displays?
Focus on you. Artfully directing all conversation away from your carefully guarded self can go too far. One-way conversations can segue into imbalanced relationships. Be prepared to offer up a few tidbits about yourself. Choose in advance a few topics you are comfortable sharing, enabling others to get to know you, too.
Regularly recharge. Socializing depletes an introvert’s energy reserves. Sensory overload makes energy vanish faster than an open lane on Santa Monica Boulevard. Head out for a breather, step away to decompress, or take a brief walk.
Maintain perspective. Keep in mind that only you know how long you linger outside taking in the view, how often you visit the powder room, or how many people you meet. No one else is keeping track—unless you do something supremely embarrassing. We won’t dwell on this counterproductive thought.
End conversations gracefully. This valuable skill ensures that conversations don’t fizzle out past their prime. It is tempting to stick around when enjoying a conversation, but better to wrap it up prior to running out of things to talk about and the onset of awkward pauses.
Bonus tip: If you love someone, set them free!
Offer your new compatriot an out. She is here to circulate and may not want to chat too long with one companion, however pleasant the exchange. You need to get back out there too, and now you are buoyed by an early networking victory. Warmth is a component of successful closure. To get started, check out these ideas:
- May I have your card? It was great meeting you.
- I am headed over to get something to eat/drink.
- Have you met [colleague passing by]?
- I’m going to freshen up.
- I need to make a call.
- I’ve enjoyed our conversation! Thank you.
- I look forward to following up.
- I promised myself I’d circulate. Enjoy the event!
- I’d like to get some fresh air.
- I’m going to sit down for a bit.
- I really have to go. I’d love to stay in touch.
- I’m sure you want to talk with others; I won’t hold you up.
It goes without saying you have your cards with you everywhere you go. And if you claim to be headed somewhere, really go (nothing like trashing your credibility immediately).
Know when to split. Set a reasonable predetermined sayonara time. Sorry, ten minutes post-arrival doesn’t qualify. Muscle through the first half-hour to acclimate; sometimes it takes a little perseverance to get into your groove. Clock out when you have accomplished your goals—and before you feel like you’re swirling around a giant drain.
Plan your escape. Have a departure plan. It’s best if you’re not dependent on someone else’s timeframe. If you are tied into others’ schedules, find a quiet place to wait as they finish up. Refrain from loitering by the door.
Keep the momentum. Consider that quarterly potluck your team coordinates. The one you are running out of feasible excuses to avoid. Rally and show up. It is remarkable what out-of-office interactions can do for rapport and productivity. Focus on non-work topics. Otherwise, you might as well be at an ordinary staff meeting.
Nametags ‘n You
Turns out I have developed myriad opinions about nametags. Some people occupy their minds with lofty topics such as philosophy, politics, or sports scores. I am lost in the trenches of nametags. The benefit of this preoccupation is to share with you my heavily considered insights.
Prioritize. If your preprinted nametag has inaccurate information, how important is a correction? Fixing the information probably means replacing a prepared nametag with a handwritten version. If it is a misspelling of your name (Michele instead of Michelle or Christy in place of Christi), you might decide to let it slide. If there is an incorrect title, not accurately reflecting a recent promotion, this may be worth fixing.
Print. When situations require writing your own nametag, use the thickest marker available. Print your first name clearly in large capitals with your last name and title smaller beneath. Do not crowd your nametag with extraneous information. If you make a mistake, throw it out and start afresh. A messy nametag is unreadable and unprofessional. Take a moment; it becomes the most important thing you are wearing.
Plastic. A nametag in a plastic sleeve is a great thing. I put a small supply of my business cards behind the name card, inside the plastic sleeve. They are easily accessible, neatly in one place, and carried hands-free. You can also use this spot to stash the cards of others you meet.
Be creative, within your comfort zone.
This adapted excerpt is included in the second edition of Devora Zack's bestselling classic and global phenomenon, Networking for People Who Hate Networking.
Devora Zack is CEO of Only Connect Consulting and a global keynote speaker. Her clients include the US Patent and Trademark Office, the Smithsonian, Delta Airlines, the US Food and Drug Administration, the Australian Institute of Management, Johns Hopkins, Cornell University, and the National Institutes of Health. She has been featured by the Wall Street Journal, CNN Money, Forbes, Women’s Health, Cosmo, Self, Fast Company, and many more. She is the bestselling author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking, 2nd edition, Managing for People Who Hate Managing and Singletasking, which have been published in over thirty languages.