“Hello, my name is Eloise and I hate networking.”
What if we didn’t know each other and I
introduced myself like this?
You may laugh awkwardly and ask me why?
Or ask me “Why are you here, then?”
Conversation started. You. Are. Welcome. ;)
What if we all had the boldness to start conversations like this at networking events, conferences, dinner parties, etc.?
I don’t. And frankly, I don’t think it is always appropriate to have a planned ice breaker line or pick up line. Seems disingenuous. Too forced.
Though I am an extrovert and thrive in social settings, I still get awkward when it comes to networking. It takes effort.
Because this is something that many of us struggle with, I am sharing tips that work for me. I believe they work because they are genuine. I have broken them up in 3 sections: PRE-EVENT, DURING THE EVENT, POST EVENT.
Let’s dig in.
If you read other networking how-to articles, they will tell you to research the people and the event. I don’t know that this is always necessary or achievable.
I want you to focus on yourself for this first section. I want you to write the answers to the following questions in your Notes app on your phone. Then review them before an event.
What am I reading? (blog, book, online subscription, magazine)
What am I listening to? (podcast, music, book on tape)
What I am preparing for? (application, race, graduation, promotion, business trip, presentation, personal trip, moving, etc.)
What have I recently completed? (at work or personally)
What have I recently learned, visited, or explored? (hobbies, new restaurant, new country)
Why do I want you to do this? Because sometimes when we are nervous, we forget the simple things. We forget the things that are happening in our own lives that could be great conversation starters or answers to questions.
<DURING THE EVENT>
After I had had my business for about a year and had gained confidence in my services, I knew I didn’t want to promote my business in the traditional sense. I wanted my business and career to grow through relationships. I joined the local chamber, an advisory board on Auburn University’s campus, and then joined a Young Professionals Group. The first step was easy = join. The second step was a bit harder = attend networking events, conferences, and advisory board meetings.
In all honesty, there were times (and are times) I did not want to go. There were times I was exhausted and wanted to go home. But I made myself go. And EVERY SINGLE TIME I went, I left with a new friend, a new client, or feeling more filled than empty.
As I look back, here is what I did and I encourage you to do the same:
1. Establish accountability and support
For every event, I put it in my shared Google calendar with my husband and told him I was going. Just telling someone you are going, will help you go when you don’t feel like it. We are never going to “feel” like putting ourselves in a new and unknown situation at the end of a long day. Thus….
“Don’t let your temporary feelings change your commitments.”
2. Bring a Friend
In the beginning, I had a friend and consultant who would go with me to each happy hour networking event. She would only stay 1 hour. We would walk in together and start the event together and by the time she was leaving, I was already in conversation with someone else. The important part is to talk to others even if you stand next to your friend.
3. Get a Drink & Make a Friend
I have had to walk into events alone (when my friend wasn’t available) so I would sign in, get my name tag and head to get a drink. This wasn’t because I needed liquid courage (though it helps sometimes). I used it so I had something to do, a direction to head, and then have something to hold. You don’t have to get an alcoholic drink, just get a drink. And when you are in line, make conversation about the drinks, the food, the line. Let this common task (getting a drink) be your conversation starter.
4. Find a Familiar Face
And if no one is in line and the bartender won’t talk to you, use the action of getting a drink to look around. Look around the room as you get your drink to find a familiar face. Maybe it is someone you know or have met before. Maybe it is someone who looks more uncomfortable than you! Maybe it is someone who looks approachable. Once you have identified them, use the following steps:
When you are approached or you approach someone new:
Smile at them
Look them in the eye
Shake their hand firmly
Say YOUR name confidently
Say THEIR name back to them
(then say their name in your head 3 times)
Starting the Conversation:
Now the hard part = starting the conversation.
If people don’t ask me questions, I start asking questions.
Here is how I start a conversation:
1. Compliment the person on something they are wearing, doing, or you have heard they have been doing. Be genuine and let it start a conversation. Once they say thank you, be ready to continue talking about it.
2. Wear a conversation starter. For me, sometimes it is a statement necklace or it’s my shoes. Or maybe you have amazing handwriting and you write your name on your name tag with an amazing font. People will notice and “boom” you have a conversation starter!
3. Ask a question:
What do you do?
What do you love most about your job?
Have you ever been here before?
How long have you been a member or served on this board?
4. Answer their questions fully.
People will ask 1 of 2 questions: “What do you do?” or “How have you been?”
Answer your questions so that they can ask more questions.
Question: “What do you do?” Answer: “I do branding work.”
Question: “What do you do?” Answer: “I am a career and branding consultant. I help individuals and small businesses figure out who they are and what they offer. Then I help them communicate it. It’s a lot of resumes and logos!”
Question: “How have you been?” Answer: “Good. Just Busy.”
Question: “How have you been?” Answer: “I am good! This fall is has been busy with work trips and weddings!”
Keeping the Conversation Alive:
Pull from your Notes App on your phone. Ask a question about something that you already like, know something about, and can talk about even if they can’t.
I thought of this as I was sitting in the car with my brother-in-law recently. He asked me a simple question: Do you know anything about Dallas, TX? Have you ever been there?
He was asking me a question to start a conversation about something he wanted to tell me. After telling him that I had been there a few years ago, I asked him “why?”
He then told me about this project he has at work, about his business trip to Dallas coming up, and what he was trying to accomplish at work. Our conversation lasted the entire car ride and felt effortless.
As we were speaking, I thought about this blog post and how this was a great example of how you start or continue a conversation. Ask a question, knowing where you want it to go, whether the other person knows the answer or not.
Wrapping up the Conversation:
There is always a point when you have exhausted the conversation and it is time to move on.
But how do you do so without an awkward goodbye?
You could ask them if they want more to drink or would like to go through the food line. That would at least get you or both of you moving.
Or you could simply tell them “It was wonderful to meet you. Do you mind if I say hello to _____?” Then walk away and go to someone you do know.
I am all about making my life (and your life) easier.
So, after you have done the hard part and met new people, follow up and connect with them. If you liked them and want to foster the relationship personally or professionally, email them. If you want to connect with them and keep them as an acquaintance, find them on LinkedIn.com and connect with them. (If you don't have the FREE LinkedIn Check List, find it here)
Take it a step further by creating a list on your phone or computer and make a note about the person. Something they like, are preparing for, or do. You will remember it better if you “write” it down. Then when you see them in public or at the next event, you can ask them about that one thing. The conversation will flow smoothly because they will feel like you are friends this time, not a networking no-body, like last time.
I sincerely hope at least one item in this blog post helped or encouraged you. Just remember, you don’t have to love networking and you don’t have to be an expert at this in order to do it.
You just have to be you.