I’ve admitted it before: I can be awkward at networking events. While I’m an outgoing person, I’m reluctant to randomly approach people I don’t know. If I attend an event with a group of colleagues, I’ll talk mostly to them. If I’m by myself, you might find me near the bar or slowly circling the room to avoid the embarrassment of standing alone. I’ve heard from many other professionals who’ve expressed similar feelings.
For career development, though, these events can be important. And sometimes we just can’t avoid them if they’re a part of our jobs. We can’t always count on going with colleagues or running into people we know. So how can those of us who struggle with networking events get the most out of them? Here are three easy steps that might help:
- Head straight to the bar. No, no, not because you need booze to make it through. This move provides you with an immediate destination when you arrive and something to do when you first walk into the room, other than stand there awkwardly. (Also, you never know who you might meet at the bar.)
- Once you have a drink in hand, briefly survey the room. Look for someone standing alone, or a small group of two or three people. I usually look for people at a standing table, which provides a set location and somewhere I can set my drink or a plate of appetizers. It also makes it easier for other people to join the group.
- Once you’ve identified a target, simply approach and introduce yourself. Do so not too aggressively—don’t startle or abruptly interrupt a conversation. But be confident. Don’t linger and wait for your target to notice you. Use body language to indicate your intention to join (like setting your drink on the standing table). This cold-turkey approach can be hard for some of us, I know. It is for me. But I’ve discovered, lo and behold, people go to networking events to meet other people (I know, a groundbreaking insight). Approaching a new person and starting a conversation is, in fact, something that’s kind of expected at networking events.
I’ve found that, while the vague idea of approaching strangers at an event and striking up a conversation can be daunting, having this strategy as my “entry plan” makes it easier. As an example, it worked well for me the other night at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s annual Tribute Dinner (affectionately known in DC as the “Smart Power Prom”). A huge event with more than 1,000 attendees, I was going on my own. I wasn’t sure if I’d run into anyone I know. So I used my strategy. Here’s how it went down:
Entered the pre-dinner reception. Headed straight for the bar (opted for a gin and tonic on that night, though sometimes I’ll do a beer, or wine, or a sparkling water). Turned and surveyed the room. Saw a guy about my age at a standing table by himself, checking his phone. Approached, set my drink down, said hi, and allowed him to finish what he was doing on this phone. We then introduced ourselves.
Turns out the one guy I chose to talk to, out of a room full of hundreds, grew up ten minutes away from me in Cincinnati, lives and works (at Proctor & Gamble) back in our hometown, and is good friends with two guys I was friends with back in high school. Small world, no? We had a great conversation centered on our Cincinnati connections, and then on our various international work. During our conversation, a colleague who writes for Foreign Policy magazine spotted me and joined us. I hadn’t seen him in more than a year, so it was great to catch up. Eventually the dinner bell rang, and we separated to head to our tables. But the cocktail hour, which I’d been apprehensive about given that I didn’t know anyone, turned out to be time very well spent. And all because of my three step process.
Next time you’re dreading a networking event—or thinking about not going because you won’t know anyone—give this strategy a try. I’d love to hear if it helps.