Hope for the Hopeless at Networking Events and Parties
How to feel more comfortable and get more out of it. Issue #4
“Your network should have people who can help you land deals, get jobs, pick up new clients, or help you learn new in-demand skills. In other words, you want to network vertically, not horizontally.” - Zak Slayback
The pain of small talk
You may be one of those people who absolutely love the typical networking events. Perhaps you’re an extrovert and it’s easy for you to have a circle of people cluster around you to hear your interesting stories.
If so, I envy you. I am not one of those people.
However, if you’re like me and a bit more introverted, then you know the pain of trying to make small talk at networking events and parties. Networking can be a good side effect of other useful events like workshops, retreats, conferences, and panels.
It has been valuable for my career and business when it happens that way. But, when networking is the primary focus of the event (e.g., meet-ups, business card exchanges, business cocktail parties), it can be stressful and frustrating.
So, my first piece of advice for those of you who cringe at the thought of a networking event is to stop being part of the general crowd at such events. Instead, pursue being on panels, speaking at conferences, teaching and attending workshops, and other places where you get a chance to naturally take the spotlight.
When we had breaks, lunch, and an afterparty, I made my usual retreat into a quiet corner of the room with my drink in hand. But, people sought me out and came up to me to talk, because they had watched me give my presentation on stage.
We avoided the usual awkward small talk.
They just wanted to discuss what I had shared, ask me more questions, and get my advice on things. It felt natural and it led to me connecting with these people and growing my network.
However, until you line up more speaking opportunities for yourself, you will probably need to deal with the usual networking events and parties. So, how do you cope? How do you get more value out of them?
First, seek out the other introverts
This is the most useful advice I’ve received. We naturally tend to gravitate to the active circles of conversations. You know the ones.
There’s an extrovert in the middle telling some great story and everyone else in the circle is listening, nodding, and laughing. You’ll never get a word in edgewise if you join those circles.
There are other people at these networking events and parties who are feeling shy or awkward too. Seek out the people who are sitting or standing alone.
Engage them in conversation and find something more meaningful to discuss than the usual small talk. I’ve always found it easier to have a deeper conversation with one to two people in a small group than trying to shout to be heard in a large group.
But, what do you talk about? How do you break the ice? That’s still a real problem for many of us. That’s where the art of smart questions comes in.
Second, ask good questions
The key to networking and most conversations is to listen more than you talk. One excellent way to do that is to ask the other person some interesting questions that invite a more meaningful discussion.
Most people like it when someone shows a real interest in them and wants to hear more about them. Just make sure you don’t ask questions that can end with a simple yes or no answer (e.g., “Is this your first time here?”).
Here are some sample questions that you can try the next time you need to start a conversation. Some are more general, some are event specific, and some fit different types of occasions.
More general questions
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
What’s the best movie you’ve seen this year?
Did you do anything fun this past weekend?
What’s your favorite way to spend the weekend?
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve been working on lately?
Relevant for an event you’re attending together
What was the highlight of the event for you today?
What has been your favorite talk/session so far?
How long have you been a part of this organization/group?
What advice would you give someone starting out in this field?
Relevant for a party
How do you know the host?
What drink are you having?
What food would you recommend here?
What’s the best party you’ve ever been to?
What is your idea of a dream job?
What is your dream vacation?
What is the next big adventure you want to pursue?
Who is your favorite author (and why)?
You get the idea. The general approach is to ask more meaningful questions to get the conversation started, perhaps ask a few follow-up questions to keep the ball rolling, and then the conversation will more naturally flow from there.
Finally, connect and follow up
This is where most people drop the ball. They meet people and maybe even have a great conversation, but they never take the next step.
The relationship starts and ends at the event. That’s a real loss when you meet someone interesting who would be great to have in your network.
One of the best ways to strengthen your network is to provide value and help others, selflessly. When you meet someone interesting, there is probably some way to follow up with them to continue the discussion and provide real value.
Is there someone you could introduce them to (e.g., if they are seeking a new job)? Is there a great article that you could send them which might be relevant to something you discussed? Is there some other interesting event that you might want to invite them to?
Keep the conversation going. Keep this new relationship alive.
Before you leave the event, connect with this person via LinkedIn or social media. Share email and/or phone numbers.
Obviously, don’t force this if it doesn’t seem like they are comfortable with it. But, if you’ve been having a nice discussion with people, they will naturally feel open to connecting with you.
At the recent conference I mentioned, I shared my Twitter name with everyone to make it easy for people to follow me and connect later. I connected via LinkedIn with a number of people. We sometimes used the app to do it right on the spot, so we wouldn’t forget.
I even exchanged a few old fashioned business cards. Crazy, I know!
The point is, networks are incredibly valuable if you take the time to curate them well and keep the relationships alive. There is no point in meeting great people if you don’t keep the connection going later. Connect with them, follow up later, and help when you can.
In summary, I do find it more effective to flip this all around and seek out events where you can speak and be in the spotlight. It makes the side effect of networking so much easier later.
However, if you are going to engage in traditional networking, it doesn’t have to be stressful and painful. Seek out a few people and have meaningful conversations vs. circling like a moth around the lightbulbs of a few extroverts.
What I've been reading and writing
Read my more detailed article on how to Stop feeling awkward, nervous, and lonely at networking events. One of my key takeaways was that “potent networks are not forged through casual interactions but through relatively high-stakes activities that connect you with diverse others.”
I really enjoyed “Your Network Is Your Net Worth: Unlock the Hidden Power of Connections for Wealth, Success, and Happiness in the Digital Age” by Porter Gale (affiliate link). She talks about the powerful secret of networking that most get wrong. Even those who know it refuse to really do it. Real networking is about giving and helping others when you do not expect anything in return.
Check out Derek Coburn’s book, “Networking is Not Working”(affiliate link) to learn how to become the Ultimate Tiebreaker, Resource, and Connector. When traditional networking keeps letting you down, you can become a Connector and form your own networking group and do it the right way.
In “Never Eat Alone, Expanded and Updated: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time” (affiliate link) Keith Ferrazzi explains why fast follow-up alone will elevate you above 95% of your peers. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, but I’m always surprised by the number of people who ghost on important conversations.
Find out why you should network vertically, not horizontally in Networking Events Are Bullshit - The people you need to meet aren’t there, and the wine will give you a headache (affiliate link). How many times have you attended networking events, met lots of people, and realized that the people you really wanted to meet aren’t even there (e.g., hiring managers, investors, CEOs)?