I have a confession to make. My name is Gregory Tall, and I hate networking. There, I said it. This might come as a surprise given my profession, but it’s 100% true. While I really enjoy meeting and talking to new people, I’ve always been turned off by stuffy networking events where I spend the whole night being asked the same questions over and over again:
You know the drill: You meet someone, engage in the obligatory niceties and immediately redirect the conversation so you can size each other up within your 5-minute convo. If you think you can get something from each other, you exchange business cards and agree to reconnect afterwards. If not, you exchange business cards anyway, promising to “keep in touch”...followed by a mad dash to the next innocent bystander. So a few years ago, I decided to stop networking. Don’t get me wrong. I still attend networking events on a regular basis, but I changed my approach to make it more enjoyable and productive for me.
Here's what ultimately worked:
Get there too late and the cliques have already formed. The people you really wanted to meet have already left and the tastiest hors d’oeuvres have already been eaten. Dang. Arrive early so you can get into a rhythm and meet people one-one-one. Otherwise you have to join a group of people already talking and that will require you to introduce yourself to 4-5 new people at once. Awkward.
Pick the low-hanging fruit.
Find the person in the room who appears to be dreading the event even more than you are. If you happen to be at a networking event that I am also attending, that would be me. Otherwise scope out the person who’s nervously avoiding others by gazing into their phone, pouring over a one-page handout or rummaging through a bag or purse. That person might not have the nerve to approach anyone, but will likely appreciate you making the first move.
Ask lots of questions.
The best networking advice I ever got came from a friend who said “be interested instead of being interesting.” Being interesting to a total stranger is hard work. And, it’s guess work. Instead of trying to dazzle people with your life, try asking them about theirs. People usually love talking about themselves and listening will allow you to actually learn about the other person and discover what you have in common. Your best bet is to start with simple, open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Like this: What did you think about the conference? Not this: Did you enjoy the conference?
Instead of trying to hide your anxiety, just flat out tell the person you meet that this scares you more than bungee jumping into a live volcano. I can guarantee you at least 50% of people will respond “me too!” Now you have something in common and can more comfortably start a conversation.
Go for quality over quantity.
Post networking event follow-up typically goes something like this: After you've collected a stack of business cards you send everyone the same “It was a pleasure to meet you” email and you eventually lose contact. Just because you can meet 20 new people per week doesn’t mean you can add them to your network in a meaningful way. So stop trying to meet everyone. Instead, focus on meeting fewer people and forming deeper connections. Get beyond the usual small talk about weather, what kind of work they do and how long they’ve done it. Have a conversation about where they grew up, their hobbies and interests, what kind of food they enjoy, etc. Aiming for quality means you will spend more time with each individual having meaningful conversations instead of just swapping business cards.
Don’t stress about it.
Nothing makes a networking event worse than going in with the mental burden of having to land a new client or job interview. You feel the anxiety and the people you meet feel it too. It’s fine to be deliberate about what you want to accomplish at networking events—in fact, I recommend it. But don’t be obsessed with your agenda. Stay focused on who you want to meet—not what you want to get from them. It’s unlikely you're going to close a major deal your first time meeting someone. However, that meeting can be the first of many that eventually lead to collaboration. Good networking is not a substitute for earning trust and building rapport—it’s a prerequisite.
Do NOT, I repeat, Do NOT promise to follow-up with everyone.
For some of the people you meet, leave it at just that. Don’t suggest you get together for coffee, don’t exchange business cards, don’t invite them to connect on LinkedIn. Don’t force the connection—just let it flow and see what develops organically. If you meet someone and don’t hit it off, thank them for their time and be on your way. Just because you don’t connect now doesn’t mean you won’t connect in the future. There are plenty of people I interacted with at several different events before we ever connected one-on-one outside of those events. It happened in time, and it was well worth the wait.
Want more networking advice? Click here to view the recording of my webinar with Erich Kurschat, communication coach and founder of Harmony Insights. Our conversation focused on networking tactics for introverts.