Networking events are all about, well, networking, yet some people seem to attend event after event without ever making a meaningful contact.
Among other things, I’ve started both national and international networking clubs and learned a lot about the different ways people interact … or don’t. And while I’m naturally gregarious, there are times when even I can’t find a way to talk to someone. That said, after a stint in my career where I produced or hosted sometimes glitzy events, I figured out a few ways to introduce myself, even when in a really tough crowd.
I’m not suggesting that you show up four hours early to the next networking event, but even coming in a half-hour early means you have time to acclimate yourself to the room, the hosts and your surroundings. By the time the next early bird gets there, you already have something in common. Also, chances are good they’ll be grateful to have someone to talk to and your initial nervousness will already have burnt off.
After a great conference, you might literally want to chew over the day’s speeches with a light bite or cocktail. Chances are good that people will be more relaxed or relieved at the end of an event. You also won’t have to struggle to make conversation, simply talk about the day and compare it to the experiences of the person you just met.
Tell the person next to you to try the weirdest food there
Even the best parties sometimes have food no one should be made to eat. If there’s something particularly pungent or beautiful, help yourself to a serving. Then start up a conversation with someone heading to the food table. Say something light or goofy that requires no pressure to respond and makes the person next to you smile and take a bite and then share their own experiences.
Smile at five people and then talk to the sixth
If you’re not the type to smile at strangers, this is a great time to start. Find friendly-looking faces in the crowd and give them a polite but not overwhelming grin or even a nod. It adds to your own comfort level while giving a subtle signal to others that you’re approachable. Then turn to the person next to you and say something like “Wow. What a friendly crowd here tonight.”
That offers them an easy chance to start chatting with you as well. It’s also slightly sneaky because if they give you the cold shoulder after that one, they prove themselves antisocial.
Acknowledge if you’re twinning
For Hollywood celebrities, having someone show up on the red carpet wearing an identical outfit can be devastating. For regular people, it can be a great conversation starter. See someone wearing the same dress or shoes as you? Smile and let them know you think they have great taste. Starting a conversation about something low key can lead to a deeper conversation about business.
Ask for help with the WiFi
Sometimes it’s just a matter of breaking the ice and having something to talk about.
Talk to the speaker
As a frequent keynote speaker at events, I can tell you that sometimes people forget there’s an actual person behind the speech. After the keynote or introduction, say hi and introduce yourself to the speaker. Thank them if they’ve done a great job or ask them to clarify a point they made.
Heckle the heckler
You have to be brave for this one, but if someone’s making an ass of themselves, call them on it in a way that shows you as being polite but determined. And then turn to the person next to you to discuss what just happened.
But never in the bathroom
I was once in the ladies’ room after a fundraising event. So was the candidate. A woman came out of a stall and before she washed her hands tried to shake hands with the woman of the moment. Don’t do that. Ever. Unlike movies where a urinal is often a place to make threats or make deals, people need privacy when using the privy.
Most importantly: Listen
If you’ve done the tough work and met someone new, don’t be so intent on selling them your life story that you scare them off. “Most networking consists of a roomful of needy people trying to sell to each other, so someone who asks and listens is a rarity,” shares U.K. based Steve Thomson, author of The Sticking Point who specializes in coaching, training, and presentation. “As a coach, that’s really my stock in trade. I think it works too because once people are talking about their own businesses to someone who is interested and responsive, they tend to reveal where the issues lie, and of course, I’m right there with the help they need to resolve those issues.”
Which leads me to the next part, figure out if you plan on following up or not and why!