And then I walked in the door.
I was with a friend, and the room was full of groups of people happily chatting away. We looked at each other, both suddenly immersed in I'm-scared-out-of-my-mind, and then spent most of the evening talking to each other before I saw one person I happened to know. I might have made more introductions, but I don't remember them. Essentially, I talked to two people that night, both of whom I already knew quite well.
In the years since, I've had several opportunities to attend networking events, and in the spirit of The Leadership Program's value, "Lead, Learn, Lead Again!," I kept at it. I led and learned and led and learned and led ... And then things started to change. For example, at a networking event at one of these conferences, I was offered a huge opportunity. At a later networking event that same conference, I met two senior vice presidents of a global company.
What I've learned is that networking is simply about expanding your network, and there are ways to do it effectively that make it way less intimidating. So, here's what I do to make networking more than just not scary, but valuable and helpful!
My top five tips to make any networking event a little less scary and a lot more fruitful:
1. Be Authentic.
Networking isn't the time to pretend to be someone you're not! Wear your favorite outfit, whatever is professional and makes you feel the most confident. Even in my suit dress days, I picked a bold green rather than the navy and black found throughout the store, because I am a bold green person. I'm also myself in conversation. I don't try to force business, I don't pretend to be someone I'm not. I often introduce myself with: "Hi! This is a networking event and we're supposed to introduce ourselves. My name is Ali," and an arm outstretched for a handshake or high-five, depending on the vibe. I'm just me. I'll talk about my puppy, my love of water and the woods and books, or whatever else happens to come up. I want to get to know them a bit more, and I want them to know me more. Make some friends.
2. Be Prepared.
Show up with more of your business cards than you think you can give away. If you have personal business cards, give them, too! I always bring both sets with me—it's always better to provide your personal card if you all want to make a play date with your kids or connect about anything unrelated to work. Don't be shy or protective with your business cards; they're meant to live with someone else. If you run out, you can always save and share information on your phones. Also, be ready for your elevator pitch (one for your career, one for your company), for when you're asked.
3. Be Curious.
Come with an "I wonder" mindset. Ask people not just about what they do, but about themselves. (Start with: Where are you from? How was your flight?) Wonder about everyone you meet and ask them serious questions about what they tell you about. Keep an open mind and growth mindset if you encounter new information. Rather than listening to respond, listen to understand. And if you start to feel like you might be in the conversation for too long, or that they don't care to know you that much after all, don't take it personally. Say a simple, "I hate to cut off our conversation, but we should probably keep mingling!" Connect with them on LinkedIn after. See what happens.
4. Be Helpful.
Instead of going with a mindset of "How can you help me?" head to networking events with a mindset of "How can I help you?" Being at the conference, you can easily share what you've learned so far in workshops, what you thought of the keynote, or the perfect place you found for dinner the other night. Keep in mind favorite articles and books, suggesting them as reading should they seem helpful. Keep your own network "rolodex" top of mind. Try to make as many connections between other people as you can. If the thought: "That reminds me of my friend [their name]," tell them that, and ask if they would like you to make the introductions. Make friends; share friends.
5. Be Audacious.
Okay, this one can be scary for some, but I tell you: It's worth it! Did your favorite presenter, or even keynote, show up? Go up to them! Say hi! I'm using a lot of exclamation points, because I feel your hesitation even while writing this. What's the worst that can happen?
Or, even more powerful, what's the best that can happen?
Written by Ali Mercier, Marketing Content Manager, The Leadership Program. Learn more about The Leadership Program online at tlpnyc.com and connect with Ali and The Leadership Program on twitter: @AliMercier and @Leadershippin.