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From Surviving to Thriving at Networking Events

Networking events are those special times in life when people gather together - generally in large numbers - to chit-chat, exchange contact info, and eat unhealthful, unidentifiable fried food in unnatural quantities.

How are the networking-adverse to survive, let alone thrive, in these situations?

Don't wait until you are psyched to network. You've got to kick yourself out that door. Once there, apply the top-secret "Pause, Process, Pace" strategy.

Pause

There are several steps in this process that will help you prepare for a successful networking experience.

  • Preregister. Committing to an event in advance makes you less likely to back down. You gain time for mental preparation, and you ensure yourself a spot at events that matter.
  • Volunteer. Arrange in advance to help out. Many networking-haters are most comfortable when in a designated, structured role. Working the event provides you with a specific reason to engage with others, rather than poking around for small talk.
  • Go with a pal. Finding a networking ally can transform your experience. Challenge each other to take turns venturing out and reporting back.
  • Clarify goals. Why are you attending? Set clear, measurable outcomes such as meeting two new people. Be realistic.
  • Arrive early. It is better to enter a room with a few people than one with a crowd packed close together. Gatherings are cozier near the beginning.
  • Take a moment. Go to a place with a mirror - the best-case scenario is a well-appointed powder room; the worst case is a small mirror you carry in your briefcase or bag for this purpose. Make sure you are at your best, or at least not entirely disheveled. Finish up with a few deep breaths.

Process

These steps ensure that you have a successful plan before you meet potential clients.

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  • Check out the nametag table. Early arrival ensures most nametags have not yet been picked up, allowing you to check for attendance of those you know or want to meet.
  • Linger by the crudits. Hanging out by the food is a good standby, particularly if you skipped dinner (but don't arrive starving, then succumb to inhaling everything within reach). Food stations offer a temporary place, purpose, and talking point. Just take small enough bites to be able to respond to others without a major time lapse for chewing.
  • Scan the room. Position yourself somewhere between the outskirts and the inner circles to obtain a good view of the maximum number of attendees. Conduct a slow visual scan. Look for those you know and those who seem approachable.
  • Get in line. Lines provide a fine alternative to standing around alone. Conversation openers with fellow line mates include asking about work, origin of an interesting name, or what brought them to the event. Completing your time in the line provides a built-in closer - exchange contact information and be on your way.
  • Make eye contact. Good eye contact conveys an interest in others while increasing their positive perceptions of you. Eye contact also disciplines you to stay focused.
  • Be an open target. Make yourself approachable. Maintain a pleasant expression. Standing-only tables are magnets for solitary folks open to conversation.

Pace

These tips in the strategy will help you make the most of your time at the event.

  • Focus on others. To many, interacting with strangers is one of the least appealing aspects of networking. The most common reason being, "I have no idea what to talk about!" You don't have to. People appreciate thoughtful questions. Displaying interest makes others like you. Sample openers include:
  1. What kind of work do you do? What do you like doing in your free time?
  2. What interesting projects are you working on?
  3. How was your day?
  4. Do you have plans for [this weekend, vacations, or the summer]?
  5. Do you want to join me in checking out the appetizers?
  • Schedule recharge breaks. Socializing can deplete energy reserves. Head out for a breather, step away to refresh, decompress on a brisk walk, or check messages.
  • Mitigate sensory overload. Particularly at major multifaceted events, there can be many rooms and a lot going on. Take a walk around to get the lay of the land. Hydrate to keep clear. Let go of what you should do.
  • Visit the information table. Event organizers often display information about products or services. Perusing pamphlets allows you to learn about your hosts, provides conversation ideas, and gives you the opportunity to pause.
  • Write it down. Note pertinent information on business cards of new acquaintances. Do not overestimate your future memory capacity. Include:
  1. Name, with correct pronunciation hints
  2. Event location and date
  3. Personal facts (family, birthday, upcoming travel, interests, and so forth )
  4. Brief conversation summary
  5. Intended follow-up

Jotting notes also provides built-in time away from continual interaction.

  • End conversations gracefully. Don't allow a conversation to fizzle out past its prime. You also want to avoid making others feel trapped talking with you. Smile and say:
  1. May I have your card? It was great meeting you.
  2. Have you met [colleague passing by]?
  3. I'm going to freshen up.
  4. I need to make a call.
  5. I've enjoyed our conversation! Thank you.
  6. I look forward to following up.
  7. I promised myself I'd circulate - I better walk around.
  8. I'm sure you want to talk with others; I won't hold you up.

If you claim to be headed somewhere, really go. A positive demeanor, light-hearted tone, and friendly smile are critical.

  • Plan your escape. Have a departure plan. If you are tied into other people's schedules, find a place to wait while they finish up. You are not at your best when you overstay your capacity to be on.
  • Know when to split. Leave before you burn out, when you have accomplished your goals, and before you feel like you're swirling around a giant drain. Prepare what to say when you are ready to depart.

In my case, I've noticed saying, "I am a consultant," does the trick. Eyes haze over as a yawn is barely suppressed. I am ditched in no time.
Adapted from Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, The Overwhelmed, and The Underconnected (Berrett-Koehler/ASTD Press 2010).

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Devora Zack is president of Only Connect Consulting; dzack@onlyconnectconsulting.com .

About the Author
Devora Zack is author of the internationally released, award-winning Networking for People Who Hate Networking (Berrett-Koehler/ASTD Press 2010) and Managing for People Who Hate Managing (Berrett-Koehler/ASTD Press 2012).  She is CEO of Only Connect Consulting, Inc., providing leadership programs to over 100 clients.    Ms. Zack has keynoted for Smithsonian, National Institute of Health, John Deere, U.S. Department of Energy, CapGemini, Urban Land Institute, National Association for Women Business Owners, Treasury Executive Institute, and Mensa International. She serves as visiting faculty for Cornell University’s business school, teaching leadership and networking to MBA students across the world. She recently toured Queensland by invitation of the Australian Institute of Management. Networking for People Who Hate Networking has been translated into 10 languages including Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, Russian, Portuguese, Korean, French Canadian, and German.
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