Humans are shy by design, not by nature, and nothing intimidates shy people more than the prospect of networking. I don’t mean the kind of social networking you do from a device, but rather, the networking you do in person at a reception, happy hour, conference, or similar event where professional networking is likely to occur.
Here are a few tips to be more successful at networking.
Dress with Confidence
I’m not suggesting you break the bank on expensive wardrobe. There is an argument to be made for certain brands lasting longer, but this is more about finding clothes that fit well, clothes that give your confidence an extra bounce.
I have a handful of suits. Of these, there are a few I gravitate to when I need that extra level of pizzazz. I rely on my favorite suits when I am going to deliver important presentations or meet important professional contacts.
If the situation does not warrant business attire, lean on those outfits that make you feel unstoppable. If you’re taking a mental inventory of your closet and can’t immediately come up with something off the top of your head, it might be worth spending a little money on a couple outfits that bring out your inner lion.
Lead with a Proper Handshake
COVID may have put a temporary pause on this social custom. I don’t see it staying gone forever though, so when it comes back, make sure you are exercising a grip that is firm, direct, but not bone crushing.
Ladies, don’t do this dumb thing where you will only shake fingertips. That’s a great way to make the recipient feel unworthy. If you would rather not shake, politely decline and move the conversation along. The rejection will only be as awkward as you allow it to be.
Fellas, this is not the time to prove your masculinity. Bone crushers make you look stupid, not powerful.
Use People’s Names
Nothing makes a person feel like you are making them the center of your attention like using their name. It must be a mental trigger. Using a person’s name moves the conversation from an abstract exchange to a personal interaction. If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re trying to negotiate a deal, even something as mundane as negotiating a lower bill, use the customer representative’s name to narrow the scope of the conversation. In doing so, you will simultaneously increase the warmth of the exchange and make the other person see you as a real human and not just another customer.
As a bonus tip, if you’re in a networking scenario, try to use their name at least three times. This will go a long way in developing a mental association between the name and the person. It will also do wonders for your memory.
Shy people have a way of dreading small talk. It’s inevitable though, and even though the subject of the weather can be an acceptable filler, you are more dynamic than that. Stay on top of current events. Follow sports, even if it is cursory. You do not have to be well-versed in all subjects, but people appreciate someone who can be conversational across a wide range of topics. Pick a good news app on your phone, and at least glance through it from time to time to get the gist of what is going on in the world around you.
Listen More Than You Speak
This point is closely tied to the one above. You only have to have a cursory understanding of a subject, because more often than not, you want the other person to do the talking. People love talking about themselves, what they know, and what they do. Listening does not mean disengaging. Nod when appropriate. Provide verbal encouragement when it makes sense. Ask open-ended questions when you want the other person to elaborate about something you may not understand.
If you leave the conversation with an action item, make sure you see it through. Send the email. Make the call. Establish the connection. People will love it when you prove to be reliable, and the next time you find yourself at a networking event, you will be able to skip all the preliminary steps and get right into the business of catching up with someone who is no longer a stranger.
Things to Avoid
- Elevator Pitches: Unless you’ve worked out a conversational pitch that matches your natural speaking pattern and vocabulary, avoid this communication device. The last thing you want to do is sound as though you’re reciting a script.
- Your Job: Unless the other person is directly asking, avoid harping on what you do for a living. Remember, you want to focus on them.
- Leaching: You don’t want to cling to any one person just because you are relieved to have found someone to chat with at a crowded event. Pay attention to their tone and body language. If it seems as though they’re starting to disengage, ask for a business card if that would be prudent, and then politely let them go, or if the person is in a position to do so, ask them to introduce you to someone else in attendance.
- The Wall: This one is especially hard for me. I want to be visible but don’t want to feel as though I might be in the way. Find natural points of convergence like the bar and use that position to more easily establish proximity. Also, nothing like proximity to liquid courage, eh? Yes, I kid.
- Dictating: Ask people if they have considered doing something. Don’t tell them to do something. You don’t know them yet. Don’t run the risk of sounding like a pompous ass.
There are situations when networking may not be ideal. Striking up a conversation on your commute could work, but if the person seems preoccupied, don’t push it. In the scenarios listed at the top of this article, it is socially acceptable to actively seek out and engage the people around you. That is the whole point of networking.
If you read through this article and still feel a sense of dread at the prospect of having to network with people at an event, consider a few things. First, arriving at the event really is half the battle. Second, you are not the only person at the event who will feel a little nervous, but you won’t find each other if you don’t give them a chance. And third, there is something to be said for setting goals. Make it your goal on your first venture to connect with just one person. Then make it your goal to connect with two people. Slowly build realistic goals that will keep you in control of the situation while slowly moving yourself out of your comfort zone.
If it makes you feel any better, I myself am still working on being a better network guy. I do better in small groups or one on one than I do in larger gatherings, but by following some of the tips above, I’ve slowly started moving away from the proverbial wall and have become a little more a part of the activity. I am confident you can do the same.
Questions? Let me know in the comments.
Want to learn more about networking? Here’s a book I had my leadership development program participants read as part of one of their assignments. So far, the reviews have been excellent. It’s a straightforward guide on building a network, using a variety of real world examples to show you how to do it smoothly. What I like most is the conversational style and humility.