Networking events are those special times in life when people gather together, generally in large numbers, to chit-chat; exchange contact info; and eat unhealthy, unidentifiable fried food in unnatural quantities.
How is a networking hater to survive, let alone thrive?
Dragging Yourself There
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 cheery, laughing, and 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? 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 if 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.
- 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 packed together. Gatherings are cozier and calmer near the beginning. Arriving early also presents an opportunity to see if you can help out.
- 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.
- 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 nonverbals 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.
- 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 or her 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.
- 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. Decide in advance 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 conversations don’t fizzle out past their prime. It is tempting to stick around when enjoying a conversation, but wrap it up prior to running out of things to talk about and the onset of awkward pauses.
- Know when to split. Set a reasonable predetermined sayonara time. Sorry, 10 minutes post-arrival doesn’t qualify. Muscle through the first half-hour to acclimate; sometimes it takes a little perseverance to get 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 others 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.
Excerpt adapted from “Networking for People Who Hate Networking” by Devora Zack (Berrett-Koehler).
Devora Zack is CEO of Only Connect Consulting and bestselling author of “Networking for People Who Hate Networking” (Berrett-Koehler), “Managing for People Who Hate Managing,” and “Singletasking.” Her books have been translated into more than 40 language editions.