Striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know isn’t difficult. In the days before social media took over our lives, talking to strangers was a surprisingly easy thing to do. Cast your mind back to a more innocent, tech-free era, and you’ll realise that it was only by talking to people that we learned more about them, such as where they were from, what they did for a living, whom we might have in common, and what they liked and disliked. Nowadays, with the internet, Facebook and LinkedIn at our finger tips, we can get answers to most of the above – and I would argue that whilst this is incredibly useful, there are obvious downsides – one of which is that having readily available information actually hinders our communication skills, to the point that we’re almost afraid of networking face-to-face!
What exactly is it about networking that makes it so daunting? There are several reasons, of course, including the expectations that it should lead to something concrete and useful, the fear of the unknown, the pressure to talk about absolutely anything to anyone, the concern that one might make a fool of oneself, or simply, that one will be completely ignored, and spend the entire evening sipping lukewarm wine and eating soggy vol au vents…
Perhaps it’s time we broke each of these down, examining each in turn, and try to demystify them a little. Only when logic replaces the fear can we really understand that networking is actually quite easy, so let’s exorcise our networking demons together, starting with…
People often go to networking events to ‘get something’ out of them – which is daft! Networking is an essential part of modern life, agreed, but it’s not like a supermarket, which you can enter with a defined list of expectations of what you’ll leave with. You might meet somebody fantastically useful, you might meet a new potential client or walk away with a job, or you might just enjoy yourself! If you pile on the expectations before you’ve even arrived, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Try not to set yourself a target, but if you must, then try to meet just one new person, take home one Ace business card. If you spend an hour in the company of strangers and learn one thing you didn’t already know, or have just one conversation with a single person, consider it a success! Don’t think you have to walk away with half a dozen business cards (which probably don’t mean much to you a couple of weeks after the event), and definitely don’t go to a networking event with the intention of trying to seal a deal, because networking is a two-way process, and the other party might have a different agenda to your own.
Fearing the unknown
The reality is, we embrace the unknown every day of the week, as soon as we leave our houses and go to work, go shopping, go out with friends, etc. Why is it somehow that getting on a plane to discover a new country is seen as exciting, whereas going to a networking event is seen as scary? To me, it doesn’t make sense. I’m not trying to compare the two, of course, but it does seem ridiculous that a conference is not viewed as being as intimidating as a networking evening, even though during the latter, one is free to move around, and talk to people to whom one wants to talk. Of course, you can’t control a networking event; but there isn’t much in life you can control – except when you exercise your own free will to stop doing something you don’t want to do.
So rather than avoid the next networking event you’re invited to, why not say to yourself ‘I’ll give it 20-30 minutes, and if I haven’t met anybody interesting, I’ll leave.’ Then arrive early, if you can, since it’s easier to talk to strangers when there are less than 10 people in the room. The reality is, pretty much everybody you’ll meet will be interesting if you open up your mind and don’t equate ‘interesting’ with ‘useful’.
We’re gradually losing the art of conversation, and I think this is what lies behind a lot of the fear. People worry that they need to be an expert on everything, but the reverse is true. A lot of people at networking events will be delighted to have an audience, so simply by asking them to tell you more about X or Y, and showing interest in something you don’t understand, you might make a friend for life – and you’ll hopefully learn something new at the same time. The important thing you may wish to master is how to present yourself, including who you are and what you do – and perhaps your reason for attending the event. This is often called the elevator pitch, and needs its own blog article, so we’ll save that for another time.
Acting the fool
What’s the worst that can happen? If you make a fool of yourself in front of total strangers, the likelihood is, you’ll never see them again anyway, so what does it matter? However, far more likely that you won’t make a fool of yourself if you do more of the listening and less of the talking – at least until you are sure of your audience. If people ask you your opinion on something about which you have no idea, be honest, and say that you’re unsure. You might also want to suggest that your own interests lie in different areas, such as ‘X’, thereby introducing a new topic of conversation. As with the above, passionate people will jump on a chance to convert you to their way of thinking, so it’ll buy you time to collect your own thoughts. If you do end up embarrassing yourself somehow, you can leave a conversation and an event at any point.
The invisible man
Perhaps the biggest fear people have is that nobody will talk to them. Most people, when imagining a networking event, will conjure up a room full of people laughing and talking, with them on the outside, all alone; none but an egotist will imagine themselves in the middle of a networking crowd, with everybody hanging on their every word – but there is a middle space, where you can imagine yourself…
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