You’ve gotten dressed up and ventured out to a networking event. With some advance research you are pretty confident that you’ll be able to make good connections at this event. You walk in and… now what? How do you jump in?
The first question to ask yourself is, “Am I a guest or a host?” If you’re a regular and know many people at the event, then consider yourself a host. This is true more times than you might have realized. Being a host means you go out of your way to welcome others and make introductions. You look for outliers and help them feel connected. You’ll find there are many benefits to being a regular and being known by others in the room.
Of course, there’s always a first time, when you’re a newcomer. What do you do if you are a guest? If you are an introvert and/or shy and you find networking very stressful, you may naturally gravitate to the edges of the room. However, this can be counterproductive to making connections.
Yes, you may find it’s easier to meet other wallflowers, but what are your options at the end of that conversation? If neither of you knows other people in the room then you can’t get introduced or make introductions. That will make exiting that conversation more difficult and potentially awkward. “Really great to meet you. Excuse me, I need to find the restroom.” Their reply, “Oh, thanks, I’ll follow you.” Awkward.
Start by circling the room to get a lay of the land. Notice how people are gathered, and look for openings in groups of 3 or 4 people who are having a casual conversation (avoid interrupting duos in a dynamic conversation). By observing the body language of others in the room you’ll become aware of who is more open to engaging in a conversation. I covered this tip in a lot more detail in another one of my blog posts: “My stickiest networking tip: Croissants are Better than Bagels.”
If you’ve completed your lap and didn’t see a conversation opening, then get in line for food or a drink. As you’re moving through the line, make eye contact with someone near you and start a casual conversation. You could ask them their opinion about the specialty drink they ordered or comment on how delicious the buffalo artichoke cheese dip is. The point is to keep it casual; this is not the moment to whip out your business card and pitch them.
It’s important to keep these interactions upbeat and resist the temptation to connect through complaining. While it’s common to complain about the weather, traffic, sports, or the stock market, these are not great opening lines, as they tend to result in rote replies. If done in excess, you will be pegged as a downer, and no one wants to hang out with a complainer. Instead, use this as an opportunity to make a positive observation or ask a question about the food or drink in front of you–just something small to get a conversation started with someone standing near you.
This is more likely to happen when you get in line for food or a drink. This is also a key difference between networking events and any night of the week at a bar. While it’s possible to apply these tips in any social situation, people are looking to make connections at a networking event. So meeting someone casually while getting a drink may lead to you being invited to meet the friend they came with. That friend may be in a conversation with a couple of people they just met. Now, instead of not knowing a single soul in the room, you are interacting with four people who are all there to get to know new people!
Of course you’ll have the best experience at a networking event if you plan ahead and have a sense of purpose for why you are in the room. Read my post on how to“Stop Wasting Time Networking” to help you make the most of these opportunities.
You’ll also want to avoid saying something that will alienate someone as you meet them. To learn best practices for what to say and what not to say when greeting someone, read my post on “The downside to being a unicorn.”
See my full list of posts below for more tips on building your professional network and strong, welcoming communities.
In the comments
Share what you find challenging about networking. Maybe your question will end up as the topic of a future blog post!
Robbie Samuels has been recognized as a networking expert by Inc. and Lifehacker, and profiled in “Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It” by Dorie Clark. Check out “On the Schmooze” his new podcast.