By Sarah Williams
By now, you’ve probably been to a couple of ‘networking events’, often held after work, and intended for those people who want to broaden their professional connections. What might sound like an enjoyable evening of rubbing shoulders with the right people is, for many of us, intensely anxious and challenging; some would rather do almost anything than attend something so terrifying.
Well, the good news is that, if you feel this way, you’re not alone. There are easy methods for changing how you think about networking, and for making it a useful experience for your professional growth. Who knows, it might even be fun.
1. Reassess Your Attitudes to Networking
You might see networking as an irritating chore, but in reality, it’s a fantastic, low-cost way to bring in new business. Although it’s less direct than a cold-calling campaign, its indirectness is its virtue; at networking events, we get to treat each other like people, and not just as a set of walking business opportunities. Face-to-face gatherings, though scary for many of us, are inherently human, with all of us in the same boat, dealing with the same anxieties and trying to achieve the same thing. Once you view networking in this way, with yourself as one of the many who just want to get the best out of the event, then it might not seem so daunting.
2. Let Go Of Your Fears
Psychologists often quote from a list of ‘Cognitive Distortions’. A common example is the assumption that we’re not nearly as smart or capable as others assume we are, and that we’ve been pulling the wool over their eyes all these years: “I’m just a fraud, and I don’t deserve to be here”. This is merely an emotional and unbalanced form of reasoning; you’re letting your irrational fear dictate how you feel, and therefore how you act.
If you think that way about yourself, it’s time to let that distortion go, and see if for what it really is: an unreal, artificial superimposition of needless and crushing self-doubt. You’re exactly as capable as anyone else, and at networking events, you’ll see this in action. The secret is that everyone else feels the same way, to a greater or lesser extent.
The other classic worries, all of them equally groundless, are:
– I’ll be alone, I won’t know anyone, and they’ll all ignore me.
– I’m an outsider, and I won’t conform to their expectations. I’ll remain an outcast.
– I’ll be silently staring at my wine glass, unable to think of anything interesting to say.
– If I do say something, I’ll get nervous, start rambling, and just embarrass myself.
These fears might seem reasonable, but take a closer look: they’re predictions, based only on a glass-half-empty view of how things will be. Besides, in general, people aren’t knowingly vindictive or hurtful; they actually want each other to succeed. Humans aren’t nearly as competitive and ruthless as we see in the movies. Being new, for example, is a type of advantage, as you’ll be a novelty and the others will be curious about you.
3. Do Your Homework
Prepare for the event by finding out who’s coming, and then make a list of perhaps four of five people you’d like to talk to. Bring business cards and aim to actually hand them out. Practice the necessary skills by speaking and meeting with strangers whenever you can in your private life. This doesn’t need to be a long conversation; just toss in an ice-breaker about the weather or sports, or think of a question to ask about what they’re wearing, driving or shopping for.
Consider recording yourself speaking, however weird this may feel, to judge your speed and clarity. Write down some introductory sentences, such as:
– Hi, I’m Marlene from Integrated Systems. I really enjoyed your presentation on…
– I’d just like to introduce myself. I’m Carl from OrbComm, and I wonder if I could ask your advice on…
– Congratulations on the award from the Better Business Bureau. I’m Sanjay from MicroTech. I wonder if you have a moment to talk about…
Read the local, national and international news so that you’ll be up-to-date on current events. Keep rotating around the room, and resist the temptation to spend time with people you already know; it’s comfortable, but it’s not why you’re there. Don’t fold your arms, but keep good eye contact. Be thinking about what you might ask next, in contrast to most of the others, who will be pondering what they might say; this sets you apart as a thoughtful and genuine person who isn’t driven purely by self-interest.
Above all, have something ready to say when the classic question arrives: So, what are you doing at the moment?
4. Follow Up and Stay In Touch
On the back of each business card, note down how you met the person, and what they’re working on, then follow up with an email or phone call within the next few days. Building contacts relies on this kind of careful administration of data; eventually, you’ll have a large set of contacts who are prepared to help you drum up business, make introductions, or provide advice.
Networking need not be the gut-wrenching challenge it once was. You’re an accomplished person with plenty to say, and absolutely no need to be shy of those you think are more capable than yourself; everyone starts at the bottom, and we’re all the same on the inside. Relax, breathe, meditate every day if you can, and remember that we’re all working in the same direction, fighting the same battles, and quietly wishing each other success.
Sarah Williams is an entrepreneur and avid lifestyle blogger, passionate about self-development. You can check out her blog and get access to her life and dating resources at Wingman Magazine.