By Liz Ryan
If you hate face-to-face networking, you're not alone. If the top-of-the-list most-feared activity is speaking in front of people, how can launching a conversation with a stranger be far behind?
I used to hate networking events, myself. I simply wouldn't go to them. Eventually, someone dragged me to an event where lo and behold, I met a woman who became a great friend. After that, things got a little easier -- but I'm still judicious about the events I choose to attend.
Networking with strangers can be lively and fun, or it can be a shoot-me-now experience. Here are some tips for easing the strain.
If you're thinking of attending a face-to-face networking event and you're nervous about it, pick an event with content - a speaker or a panel. That way, you won't be forced to spend several hours networking without a net.
If you aren't a natural networker, you can prefer to attend events that feature structured networking of some kind. Structured networking activities organize the conversation so that attendees don't have to find their own conversation-mates and begin and end conversations organically - the event host sets up a networking activity that makes the conversation less stressful.
If you don't enjoy conversation with people you don't know, bring a friend (or two) to networking events with you. I perform this service for my friends all the time, and bringing a reluctant networker to an event with me raises my fun-quotient for the evening, as well as my friend's, because we can take a break and compare notes on the networking, the people and the food whenever we like.
For most of us, the least appealing networking situation is the one where we find ourselves in a room full of total strangers, who all seem to know and be cozy with one another. If you bring a friend with you, you'll never be the only newbie in the room.
If you want to do some networking but don't want to be overwhelmed, arrive when the networking portion of the event is halfway done. People will be chatting away, and you (and your friend) can join in a group conversation knowing that in twenty minutes, the speaker presentation will begin
There's no rule that says that once you've paid your registration fee, you have to attend the whole event. Make sure, of course, that you don't walk into the room in the middle of a speaker presentation or otherwise disrupt the meeting. That's one unfortunate way to be noticed!
For people who don't like breaking into groups of avid talkers, my suggestion is to approach the most forlorn and lonely-looking person in the room, the person standing by him- or herself when you enter. That person may be a reluctant networker, too, and will undoubtedly be happy to have someone to talk to.
Don't put pressure on yourself to have X number of conversations or to collect a certain quantity of business cards. Fewer, richer conversations are better than lots of quick and forgettable ones.
Not sure how to start a conversation? Think of your conversation-starter as a friendly, informal interview. "So, what brings you here this evening?" is pleasant. Keep your focus on your conversation partner, and additional questions will easily spring to mind. "Are you originally from here?" If you hate the dreaded "So, what do you do in your work?" you can spend half an hour learning about your acquaintance's life history, interests outside of work, favorite places to travel, and so much more. If a conversational spark develops, you can follow it wherever it leads.
Don't feel that you have to stick to business topics -- they tend to be the most boring ones!
"Spitting" in conversation is shoving your elevator pitch in a person's face -- don't do it! Let your conversation-mate ask you questions about your business if he or she wants to.
A Bumper Sticker is a good thing to have -- it's a one-liner that succinctly shares what you do without going into detail. "I design and manage large product databases for consumer-packaged-goods companies" is a bumper sticker. A self-description that takes 15 or 30 or 45 seconds is way too long, and unsuitable for one person to deliver to another person in the normal flow of human conversation.
In the same vein as interviewing (tip 5) our new acquaintances, asking them questions about themselves and their interests is a great way to learn new things and to build rapport. If you don't know a thing about metallurgy, don't be afraid to ask 'stupid' questions of the metallurgist standing next to you at the canape bar. People are normally happy to share what they know.
Asking questions of new acquaintances is my hands-down favorite way to get to know them. "I'm afraid I don't know a thing about [your profession] - can you tell me how it works?" is a great all-purpose question when you're out of your depth.
Always end a conversation by thanking a person for his or her time, and expressing your admiration for the person. "I'm so glad I got to meet you - it's been lovely to learn about you!" is a pleasant way to part.
If you feel like asking for a business card, by all means do it, but don't ask for it if you plan to throw it away the minute you get a chance. Use the card for follow-up after the meeting (seen #9 below).
Likewise, don't offer your business card to everyone you meet, just because it's a networking meeting.
If you seek further interaction, ask "Do you ever like to have coffee, or lunch near [your general location]?" rather than making a specific invitation. It is easy for a not-terribly-interested person to reply "My travel schedule makes it really difficult" thereby letting you know that you're barking up the wrong networking tree.
The day after a networking event, write to the people you most enjoyed meeting, and thank them for their sparkling conversation.
If you can manage it, send something of value along -- the link to an article that's relevant to your new friend's interests, for example.
It is rare, and very pleasant, for an event organizer to receive a thank-you note or two from attendees the day after an event. Be one of the polite folks who takes time to write and thank the host for his or her time and effort.
If you want to get better at networking, offer to volunteer as a Greeter at the organization's next event. That should get you in the door for free, enable you to meet most everyone attending, and give you a good reason to talk with people!
If you are uncomfortable "networking," don't spend much time and effort attending large meetings where you know no one. Focus on smaller groups and even one-on-one conversations (think, informational interviews as an alternative). Don't completely avoid the big meetings, though. You will discover that the more face-to-face networking you do, the stronger your network will become and the more comfortable you will get with talking with people, even with strangers.
Liz Ryan is Job-Hunt's Networking Contributor. Liz is a former Fortune 500 VP and 25-year veteran of corporate human resources departments. In addition, Liz is the author of Happy About Online Networking and an internationally recognized expert on careers and the 21st century workplace. Find Liz on LinkedIn and on Google+.