As my family made our way downtown to Artisan Alley, we stopped in to greet a friend who started tending bar on the weekends. A born extrovert, my 3 year old son had no problem striking up conversations with every grownup at the bar. “What is your daddy’s name?” “I have two cats.” “Watch my shoes light up!” As we said our goodbyes, he proudly stuck up his two middle fingers and yelled, “Hey everybody, do this!”
I honestly have no idea where he gets it. My husband and I are a lot more like our daughter, who at the same age would hide under my skirt when someone would so much as say hello. Networking may come natural to people like my son, but for the rest of us, the idea of making small talk in a room full of strangers is enough to make us search for a skirt to hide under.
(This kid knows how to work a crowd.)
While networking may come easier to some people than others, just like any skill you can get the hang of it with enough practice. Whether you’re new to networking, or you’re just trying brush up your game, here are 10 tips to get you started:
1. Come prepared with quality business cards.
I’m not going to lie. When you hand someone your business card, there’s a fairly decent chance that the only other time they’ll look at it is when they’re cleaning out their wallet. That said, the exchange of business cards is almost as common as a handshake in the world of networking, so it’s important that you come prepared. While social media and business websites are replacing business cards as a means of sharing your contact info, business cards serve a critical function by giving you the opportunity to leave a lasting first impression. Your business card can say a lot about you, so it’s worth investing in quality stock with extras like rounded edges, embossment, foil stamping or spot laminate (and of course, quality design!).
2. Show up with a custom name badge.
Forget about walking into a networking event and having to stop and fill out a “Hello my name is” sticker. Like quality business cards, having your own custom name badge is a small investment with a huge payoff because it will help you look (and feel) more like a professional. Wearing a name badge also makes you more approachable by giving people a tool to remember who you are and what you do, especially when your logo is featured on your badge.
3. Leave your wingman at home.
While bringing a plus one to a networking event can make showing up easier, it won’t help your efforts in making new connections – which, after all, is the whole point. If your plus one is outgoing or already knows the crowd, it’s easy to be overshadowed and let them do all the talking. On the other hand, if you show up with someone who is as much of an outsider as you are, there’s a good chance that you’ll spend most of your time socializing with them.
4. Set some networking goals.
Before attending your next social, set some goals for yourself and make a game out of reaching those goals. For example, you may want to introduce yourself to 5 people or collect a certain number of business cards. For some extra accountability, share your goals with a friend or colleague, then text them your results.
5. Be a good listener.
If you get nervous talking to new people, ask questions and let them do the talking. They’ll appreciate your interest in what they have to say, and the more you learn about them. This might lead to find things you have in common which will make it easier for you to share.
6. Practice your elevator speech.
Perhaps the most dreaded time for introverts in networking situations is when they go around the room and give attendees the chance to introduce themselves. When I attended my first networking event, I made the mistake of sitting at the font table. As the president of the group announced that we’d be introducing ourselves and handed me the mic to go first, I thought I was going to die.There are times when all you need to say is “My name is so and so, and I’m with such and such.” But in smaller groups where there’s more time, some extra details may be expected. As you prepare to network, it’s always a good idea to jot down a very brief introduction that explains who you are, what service you offer, who your ideal client is, and a call to action (aka, your elevator speech). Choose phrasing that you’d use in real conversation so it doesn’t sound overly prepared, then practice your elevator speech when you’re in the shower or driving alone. Don’t stop if you mess up (you should learn to recover), and don’t worry about using the exact same words each time. Eventually the basic outline of your introduction will be ingrained in your mind, and once it does you’ll be able to call on it when you need to without thinking twice.
7. Keep showing up.
If you feel like your first networking event was a bust and no one even noticed when you left, try not to get discouraged. They just haven’t had the chance to know you yet, and as you return you’ll start recognizing and being recognized by more people until you no longer feel like an outsider. If you really want to fast track getting on the inside, see if there are any committees you can help with. Organizations are always on the lookout for good volunteers, and there’s really no better way to get to know people than to work with them.
8. Understand that you’re not the only one who’s nervous.
Keep an eye out for others who are feeling the same anxiety as you. Once you recognize when others are feeling anxious, offering them an encouraging smile or warm welcome is a sure fire way to melt your own anxiety.
9. Don’t try too hard.
Keep in mind that as you network, your focus should be on building business relationships and you’re not strictly there to sell. Of course the end goal is that some of these connections will help you to grow your business or create the opportunity for more paid work. But when you’re throwing out business cards like they’re going out of style and you’re just as likely to give your elevator speech as a simple hello, people will pick up on that and you won’t come across as genuine. Sales-focused networking may give you a boost in the beginning, but you’ll likely get more long lasting and profitable results by focusing on relationships.
10. Think long term.
Relationships don’t always happen overnight, so it’s best to have a long-term focus when it comes to networking. The more you put into organizations and networking relationships, the more you’ll get out of them. So long-term involvement means you’ll have the opportunity to nurture meaningful relationships with people who can hire you, mentor you, or make meaningful introductions.
While networking might feel like a huge challenge, the more you do it, the easier (and dare I say, more enjoyable) it will become. If all you do is engage in just one meaningful conversation during a networking event, that in itself is a huge success!
Now get out there and start making some connections! If you have any networking tips or tricks you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments below!