If you are anything like me, then you might feel a little nervous when meeting new people in new places. Here I will take you through some experiences I’ve had when I started to network professionally. Think about all your fears in social situations, in public, or public speaking. Now forget them all, breathe, and be yourself. Be who you want to be.
Generally, you want to be comfortable in your own skin while appearing in a professional setting, but this is easier said than done. Not everyone is perfect, nor should you expect them to be. It’s important to remember that you have to go with the flow of conversations and contribute when the time feels right. In your inquiries, you might slip up and it may be embarrassing, but dont be discouraged. You are learning more about yourself in relation to others in this, often fast-paced and stressful, professional world.
Tip: One fear I found that I had to overcome was to include older individuals in the conversation and to not be afraid of the generational gap. I’m talking about persons older than your parents. I am turning 25 in 5 months and I am smack dab in the middle of adolescence and adulthood. (This is a strange age to be right now, but that conversation is for another post.) Be the bridge that connects the younger minds to the more seasoned individuals. They have much to teach you, and if you genuinely want to learn, most professionals are willing to give some advice if you ask.
LISTEN: Especially when some one is really into telling a story, wait until they reach a closing point before contributing any comments. Determine how comfortable you are with the subject at hand and let yourself express what you know with those involved in the conversation. Don’t be arrogant, and at first, stay PC. Once you build a rapport with these people, you may have more room to joke and be humorous. But remember, in the beginning, be polite, courteous, and attentive—these are signs and behaviors of an observant participant that is patient and can easily transition between comments and discussion. Let others know you are interested in what they say.
ENGAGE: When you want to find out more about a company, an individual, or a group of people, dont be afraid to walk up and start a conversation. Obviously, you dont want to rudely interrupt someone while they are talking to someone else, but you do want to get closer to where you can hear how their conversation is going. When you have something relevant to add to the conversation, dont be afraid to add a short, yet concise comment about what is being talked about. Therefore, the point of interest is aware that you are listening and are available for descent conversation. Allow me to add, this is in a networking setting, where there are many people in the same viscinity trying to get to know one another—professionally.
I find it to be helpful to gather information about the people you want to speak to before you actually speak to them. Whether it be by overhearing their conversation, asking others about your point of interest, or reading up about them online. Usually, if you want to excel at a high rate, you want to talk to people of a higher position by asking them questions, such as how they came to gain their respective position, what is it they enjoy about the work they do, or even ask what it is they are currently working on (even though you might already have researched beforehand). Keep good eye contact (but don’t try to peer into their soul), nodd when you understand, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Oh yea, a nice smile helps, too.
WALKING AWAY: When you realize you are talking to someone that you don’t find particularly interesting, it is not rude to walk away. If the conversation is getting weak and connection is not there, begin to look around the room to see where you might want to go next. Maybe there is a chance to start up a new conversation with someone you’ve had your eye on and they’re finally free. Or there could be a group of people engaging in more interesting conversation and you might finally say: “I’ve been trying to talk to this person all night and here is my chance, please excuse me.” You weren’t on the same page, you were not having engaging or meaningful connection, so, in my world, it probably wouldn’t offend the other person that you find a point to disconnect. The other person is probably relieved that you let them go first so that the awkward situation could finally end.
Another way to break from conversation might be as easy as saying “Would you please excuse me, I have to find the restroom.” No one will stop you from relieving yourself and taking care of emergency business. But try not to use this too often at a single event. People could be watching your movements and gauge their judgements on a surficial level (that guy/gal either drinks a lot or has social anxiety–both qualities are not attractive).
ALWAYS CARRY A CONTACT CARD: Before going to a networking event, I make sure that I have at least 10 business cards on me. It is a simple card with the necessary information: my name, email address, and phone number. Since I am currently unemployed and have no position or job title, I leave that part out. (One tip someone told me was to put down ‘Listener’ where the job title should be.) The card is matte stock paper so that I can write down on the back of the card what we talked about, where we met, and maybe a personal mark so it will be easier for that person to remember me. When I don’t have any cards or I don’t wish to hand any more out, I would say “Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m fresh out.” This makes it seem that I am a popular person to get in contact with and that I have been networking my butt off, which, therefore, raises my value.
FOLLOW-UP: When you recieve or exchange business cards with someone, it is always a good idea to follow up with an email that night or the next morning. The time frame is crucial because after 3 or 4 days without any contact from you, you are nearly out of their working memory. Let them know that you enjoyed your conversation on X, Y, and Z and that you would like to talk to them further about whatever it was that you talked about. If this contact is a potential employer, let them know your strengths and what you can offer in the next two weeks. Or, try to schedule an informational meeting with them to see where you might be able to fit yourself into their niche. Ending with “Thank you for your time,” shows that you appreciate their time and effort in responding to and considering you as a potential business associate. Always close your emails with your name and contact information (mobile/email) so that they options on how to get back in touch with you.
Stay positive and keep putting yourself out there. If you follow this guide on how to network at function, you are bound to get positive feedback and ultimately getting your career moving.