For many of us, walking into a crowded space is enough to spark an instant panic attack. Whether it’s a committee meeting, a work gathering or just a party where you don’t know anyone, your heart beats faster, your mouth goes dry, and instead of joining in, you’re looking for a safe place to hide.
The hurdle: Networking is scary for a lot of us. We feel an instant sense of isolation when we enter a room full of unfamiliar faces. But you can’t afford to shrink into a corner or find excuses not to show up. Women often talk themselves into thinking networking events are a waste of time, but they actually provide a chance to build relationships, no matter what the occasion. Seizing these opportunities can even mean the difference between being stuck in a dead-end job and making the connection that leads to the workplace of your dreams.
Decide who you want to meet.
Mingling with friends is easier than seeking out strangers, but it’s not going to make you a networking sensation. Instead, be bold. Target the people who have influence. Before the event, review the list of attendees and say to yourself, “I’d like to talk to him” or “I’d like to get to know her.” That kind of focused approach will get you in the mindset of meeting new people.
Step up with a positive attitude.
Lucille Ball once said, “Love yourself first and everything else falls into line.” When you make your entrance, think about what you have to offer. Stand tall and repeat a mental mantra about yourself — a sentence that gives you confidence. It might be “I have been invited to be on this committee because I have the financial savvy this group needs.” Or “I’m bright, engaging and funny, and I can’t wait to meet some new people.”
Make your approach.
Once in the room, walk up to the people you want to know, shake their hands, introduce yourself by name (even if you’re wearing a name tag), and begin the conversation. People love talking about themselves, so get them going. They’ll open up to you if you ask them almost anything: “How are you enjoying this event?” “What brings you here tonight?” “Did you enjoy the speaker?” “How long have you been on this committee?” Once you start asking questions, you learn about the other person and begin establishing rapport and immediately take the pressure off yourself.
Have some fun.
When you know something about the other person, you can decide what to say about yourself that will be intriguing to them. Let’s say you’re talking to an executive who has just joined your company and he says he’s excited about this new mandate. You can share with him the work you’ve done to build the talent pool or other recent accomplishments you’ve had. Or maybe he mentioned a recent trip or hobby that you can relate to and use to highlight your fun, outgoing side. The key is to make chatting enjoyable. The deep, dark secret about networking is that people want to have fun. They want to enjoy their encounters as well as benefit from them. So laugh, open up and show off your true self. Be passionate, too. Genuine passion reflects energy, vitality and enthusiasm.
Look to the future.
To make the most of your networking, it’s a good idea to close off your dialogue with “next steps.” Do you want to see that person again? If so, say so. And suggest a time, a place or an opportunity where you might go for a coffee, work on a project or get to know each other better. This is your follow-through strategy. Networking can be the beginning of some great and lasting relationships; you just have to be brave enough to get the conversation started.
For more advice, read Judith Humphrey’s book Speaking as a Leader or go thehumphreygroup.com.