How to Work a Room – 7 Networking Tips that’ll Transport You to the “In” Crowd
Networking—people tend to love it or hate it.
It divides the conversationalists from the soft-spoken, the extroverts from the introverts, the dancers from the wallflowers—and it ultimately determines who will fail or succeed in the business world, where connections matter more than resumes and interviews.
Or at least that’s the story we’re told.
But despite its evolving nature, the whole concept of networking continues to reek of forced two-hand-ow–that–hurts-grip handshakes, full-teeth fake grins, and dizzying circles of look-at-me professionals hoping to grab the attention of the important people in the room with a sleek new business card that’s definitely cooler than yours.
And maybe everyone’s holding martinis—I feel like alcohol tends to be in there somewhere.
Anyways, networking—and the event culture that encourages it—doesn’t always have the best reputation, even though all entrepreneurs must do it, some way or another.
You heard that right—there’s no escaping it. We’ve all got to network.
Or perhaps, if you’re a networking fan: We all get to network!
Either way, there’s good news: networking doesn’t have to be a smorgasbord of clichés with forced interactions, mind-numbing small talk, and copy/paste follow-up emails as real as Velveeta “cheese.” You can learn how to go against the networking grain, which will ultimately make the journey through any networking room all the easier.
Doubters, you can actually turn networking from a to-do list item that inspires perpetual dread into something that’s actually enjoyable that doesn’t kill little pieces of your soul.
Avid networkers, you can try out some new techniques for making the process more meaningful and effective—even if that means going against the norm sometimes.
No matter what preference you’re coming in with, changing our networking strategy certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it requires an array of actions to transform it into what it’s actually supposed to be—an authentic way to meet more people, help one another, and learn new things. Who would have thought?
Let’s look at seven ways to make that transformation happen.
1. Change Your Mindset About Networking
We’ve already established that unless you’re a Tony Robbins protégé or the town mayor, the common reaction to networking by most people tends to be pretty… lackluster.
“Ugh, I have to go to this thing later to ‘make professional connections’.”
“We’re supposed to mingle… what does that even mean?”
“Will there be an open bar?”
It’s hard to blame people. All social awkwardness aside, traditional networking events often promote a “what can I get” mentality, where the evening becomes a game of business card roulette rather than an opportunity to make meaningful connections with a few cool people in the room.
While it can be tempting to fall prey to this mindset, changing the attitude with which you approach the world of networking can drastically affect how the whole experience plays out.
Oddly enough, it can boil down to simply having goals. Most people attending a networking event don’t set any—making the whole night seem kind of pointless. I mean, you set clear-cut goals so that you can track and monitor everything else in your business or work—why wouldn’t you do the same with networking?
Take some time beforehand to truly think about how attending a networking event could be beneficial to you. Go the extra mile and even make a short list or voice memo on your phone; this small task could serve as a great reminder of why it’s worth investing energy in your networking strategy in the first place.
Are big names in the industry going to be there? Have you been wanting to have face-to-face interactions with reps from other organizations in the field? Do you have an overwhelming hankering to devour an entire meat and cheese tray? (Just kidding on that last one, although, why not?)
You should also give some thought to how you can potentially help others you might meet. What skills or knowledge are you bringing to the table that could be useful to others? (More on that in point 4.)
Once you know what you’re hoping to take away from the experience, set a specific goal, so that by the end of the night, you’ll know if you reached it. For example, don’t just go into a networking event with the goal of meeting “a bunch” of people in your industry. Instead, set a concrete goal with numbers and topics to help guide you:
“Tonight, I intend to make a personal connection with two to three individuals who work in or have knowledge of SEO strategies and e-commerce.”
Obviously, you can’t predict who you might meet, so by the end of the night, you may have met people who don’t correspond with the goals you set initially. That’s ok; it’s actually part of the spontaneity that networking events encourage.
Similarly, while you may go into a particular event hoping to connect with high-level execs (or other VIPs whose assistance could be beneficial to your career), keep an open mind.
It might seem like you need to make contact with the most important people in the room, but that might not always be the best bet—they’re likely to be already bombarded by overzealous followers hoping to make a name for themselves.
Sometimes connecting with others on a similar level as you, or even with those whose fields of interest might not seem to overlap with yours, can still be very helpful to you in unpredictable ways. You might be able to form a partnership, collaboration, or other team effort. Or perhaps you could create some kind of skillshare relationship with them or similar collaboration.
When you consider the fact that everyone offers you something to learn, it becomes much harder to waste your time.
2. Choose Events Wisely
As you change your mindset on networking itself, you need to consider what types of events match your new mindset. Not all networking events are created equal.
In fact, who said that networking has to be done inside traditional venues at all? Some places you might consider networking include, but are not limited to:
- Coffee Shops
- Community Events
- Virtual Fairs
- Facebook Groups / Forums
- Direct Email
- Social Outings
- Google Hangouts/Skype Calls
- Your ideas?
Essentially, sometimes networking events and locations are going to be suited towards your social and professional inclinations—and sometimes they aren’t.
To the degree that you can, choose the ones that you think will both allow you to best represent yourself and interact meaningfully with others.
This requires a bit of self-reflection about your own preferences for interacting. Do you like to talk to others in big groups or one-on-one? Do you prefer online interactions over in-person ones? Would you like there to be other things going on, apart from the networking aspect, to allow moments for private reflection or recharge (live music, dancing, snacks)?
Such considerations can be important for quiet folks and talkative ones alike, as environments that are either too stimulating or not stimulating enough may ultimately prove to be frustrating.
That said, if there is an event going on that really interests you, but which doesn’t fall within your comfort zone, it can be a good idea to go for it anyway. You may find that things you once disliked or feared aren’t so bad after all.
Speaking of interests, keep them in mind as you select networking events worth attending. Chances are that an event won’t be of great value to you if you’re attending something out of pure obligation, or simply because you feel as though it “might be worth it”; you’ll spend more time checking your watch or your phone than actually interacting if you don’t really want to be there in the first place.
Touch back on your reasons for wanting to go and/or network from the first point.
Are you wanting to learn about a new topic that’s relevant to your business? Do you want to connect with possible new partners? Have you heard that this particular gathering does a great job of making X, Y, or Z happen for its attendees? Are you jonesin’ for some hors d’oeuvres?
Know what you’re looking for and plan accordingly.
3. Ask Questions and Be Curious
So you’ve psyched yourself up, chosen some cool events, and you’re here in your nicest dress, tie, or gender-neutral attire of choice. Woot—half the battle is over, right?
Well, now for the other half. That’s right… it’s time to talk to people. Take one last bite of the veggie spring roll and waft away from the food table, friend. You’ve got this!
Once a dialogue is started via a simple “Hello, I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m So-and-so, and you?”, the conversation starters you’ve tucked in your pocket, or “How about that cheese platter?”, it’s time to talk turkey. (Am I hungry?)
This is the part where a lot of people go wrong.
Everyone knows that everyone else is likely there for themselves—that is to say, they’re hoping to make an impression, a connection, or some kind of professional splash.
It naturally follows that a lot of people come to networking events to talk about: themselves. Elevator pitches are practiced in hotel mirrors before everyone gets together to ensure maximum information delivery in minimal time. (I feel gross even writing that sentence.)
In some cases, it probably makes sense to hone a silver bullet of information about yourself to shoot out into the world, like some kind of self-promoting paintball.
But you? You’re taking a slightly different route by actively listening first. This means you enter conversations with the curiosity of a much younger, little professional person (think: Kid President). This doesn’t mean you act like a starry-eyed newb, but that you genuinely show interest in what the other person is talking about and ask questions.
The key word here is genuine. If you slap on a cheesy grin and nod emphatically but your eyes glaze over while the person is talking, trust me—it’ll show.
Be authentic; listen to what people say, pay attention, wait until they are done speaking, and follow up with a question that helps the conversation naturally flow forward. Think in terms of open-ended questions that can’t be easily answered with “yes” or “no”. Consider framing your questions with the following sentence starters:
- Tell me more about …
- How do you …
- What are some of the best/worst …
- What if you …
Go in with the mindset that anyone you meet has something new to share and that you can learn from regardless of how high or low in a company they are, and act accordingly. This refreshing behavior will help you build instant connections with the new people you meet and make them want to know you more.
This last point is key; if your goal is authentic networking, you’re not making a transaction—you’re beginning a relationship. The first building blocks of a relationship started through networking should look the same as those of a new friendship. With any luck, some networking relationships will actually become friendships.
Also, anyone who’s been an entrepreneurs knows that that getting on the good side of information-savvy gatekeepers (like secretaries, receptionists, phone-answering interns, and other similar folks) is a smart use of your time.
4. Give First…
In keeping with the above tip of surprising people with genuine interest to spark connections, here is a related strategy that goes against the typical networking grain—giving before receiving.
This could be something as simple as a piece of advice, introduction, or brainstorm in the moment —or something a little bigger. For those individuals that you feel yourself making a strong connection with as you talk, consider doing something for them outside the event that can solidify your relationship.
You can easily make this happen by using the five-minute favor. As you talk to people and get to know what they are working on, try to figure out something they are struggling with. Are they looking for a person you could connect them to? A resource you could forward them? A few suggestions you could email?
Find out what the thing may be, and if you can do it in a short amount of time (use around five minutes as your rule of thumb), do it. If possible, pull out your phone and do it in the moment.
Should you not want to do that, still pull out your phone and set yourself a reminder to show that you are actually serious about making the thing happen. Obviously, depending on the event and situation that you’re in, this might not always be possible, but it is a great way to show that you are serious about doing the favor and that your promise is more than just talk.
Try to avoid simply handing out your business card and telling people to email you—that’s like giving them homework. A true favor is done willingly and gladly, without extra hoops and barriers.
5. … Then Ask
Now that you have established an authentic, genuine rapport with someone based on thoughtful conversation and a helpful disposition, it’s a perfectly good time to bring things back to you.
Remember: why are you at the event in the first place? Is there something that the person in front of you could possibly help you with?
When it comes to a request, try to stick to something similar to the five-minute favor rule you used in the above point. If possible, determine ahead of time a specific favor or question you could ask individuals who are willing to help you.
Avoid things like “Could you tell me about X topic?” or “I’d love to pick your brain about Y.” Unless you’ve both got tons of time and the desire to chat it up, this will only lead you down a rabbit hole and may ultimately waste both of your time. (Note: this might seem to conflict with my advice above about asking open-ended questions. Remember, we’re switching here for a second from “care about them” mode to “care about me” mode.)
Instead, boil down what you are really looking for into a specific thing: an introduction, a resource, a piece of information, etc.
Even if you hope the connection with this person might evolve into something bigger, start small. Nudge open the door for a deeper relationship to grow from there.
It’s much harder for someone to turn down a simple, small favor than it is for them to turn down a coffee meetup, which can be the networking equivalent of asking for marriage on the first date.
6. Follow Up With Something Personal
If it turns out that you and your new acquaintance could be helpful to one another professionally (or, you know, if they’re just a cool person in general), try to connect with them as soon as you can, most likely online through some kind of social media platform.
Whether it’s on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or some newfangled service the kids are using these days, make sure to touch base with a message that serves to remind both how you met and what you discussed.
“Hey Sara, this is Jeff from the e-Commerce Marketing Conference. Really enjoyed chatting with you about ways to reduce cart abandonment. Looking forward to trying some of the suggestions you gave me on my site!
By the way, I found that resource I was telling you about. Here’s the link…”
That’s for starters—which is what people usually do. However, don’t let your interactions stop there.
If you really are wanting to build your relationship into something a little more substantial, remember that they are a whole person with lots of interests and projects apart from what you discussed – or even what their job title says.
Notice what other things they’re involved with, what they post, and what they really care about. To the degree that you can do so authentically (there’s that key word again), engage.
Comment, ask questions, share resources. Show that you actually care about connecting with them on a real level, and more great, organic things are likely to spring from that.
Before you realize it, you will have started to form a circle of people who are not just “networking contacts”, but a real group of cool, interesting people you can work with now and in the future.
7. Don’t Follow the Rules—Un-networking
Get all that? If you just follow all of the above tips, step-by-step, you are 100 percent guaranteed to become a resident Cool Girl/Guy in your industry in no time flat.
Believe me? Probably not. Even I don’t.
Why? Because people are people—squishy, complex, contradictory beings who don’t fit into square boxes and sequential lists.
So it makes sense that networking—meeting and connecting with, you guessed it, people— wouldn’t fall into an “if this, then that”-type formula.
Sure, there are some great guidelines to follow when it comes to networking (see points one through six), but some of what might work for one person totally fails for someone else.
Certain industries lend themselves to particular kinds of communication and norms over others. Those are things that you are likely to know for yourself; people tend to know their own communities best.
Obviously, ff you know something about your industry that I don’t, trust your gut. But I have a feeling that the core essence here—being a friendly person who genuinely cares about what other people say and who wants to help them—probably holds true in most tribes.
Apart from that basis, be open-minded when it comes to networking. Don’t do something that feels super weird or unnatural just because it’s “what people do”—and don’t be afraid to do something that seems super off-the-wall if it feels right to you.
Dare to un-network, to break rules, to create your own strategies for making connections. You’re likely an entrepreneur or location-independent person because you don’t like rules in the first place, so who says you can’t apply that same mentality to building your connections?
Try it, and see what happens.
Real Changes Equal Real Connections
If you made it this far, you’re probably a person with a growth mindset about networking—mainly, it can be better than what we’ve experienced in the past and what we’re told it “has to be.”
We can ditch the agendas, the fakeness, and the incessant business card swapping; instead, we can focus more on the stuff that matters: meaningful interactions, new connections, and idea brainstorming and development.
However, moving away from the networking status quo requires legwork on your part, based on a few key guidelines:
- Change your mindset around networking — Assess your needs and go in with a plan.
- Choose your events wisely — Why waste your time? Attend things that matter to you.
- Ask questions, be curious — There is something to learn from everyone; incorporate that mentality into your conversations, whether they’re with a CEO or an intern.
- Give first — Extend a hand with more than just a business card and, instead, offer a small favor.
- Then ask — Make it a two-way street and have a specific request the person could do for you.
- Follow up with something personal — Don’t just make an obligatory online connection afterward; plant the seeds of a friendship using shared interests.
- Don’t follow the rules — Accept that making connections with other humans is not a linear, logical process; forge your own path and you’re likely to find mavericks right alongside you.
In the end, networking might still fall to the bottom of your list of favorite things to do in your business, stay at the top, or fluctuate.
Regardless, making some tweaks and overhauls to the networking experience may be what leads you to the people you really need to meet.
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