Photographer George Gvasalia
Networking events can be a huge source of stress and anxiety: a room full of strangers, potentially-awkward interactions and conversations you don’t know how to start…or end. You’re not sure what to wear, let alone what to say. You’re thinking to yourself, “Do I have food in my teeth? Shall I go on?”
Perhaps you’re going because your boss is requiring you to go, or because you understand the value of getting out in the world and building relationships to help your company grow. If events create anticipatory tension for you and/or leave you feeling drained, I’ll share with you some proven strategies to make it less overwhelming.
Practice a confident introduction.
First impressions matter. So practice in the mirror or with a friend how to say hello with a smile and a firm handshake. Say naturally, “Hi, I’m _____, what’s your name?” and just like that, you’ve broken the ice!
I promise you, if this sounds scary to approach a stranger, know that everyone who is attending a networking event is there to meet new people, and many are just as nervous as you are. So, do them a favor by being the one to initiate the conversation, and they will feel grateful immediately.
Have questions in mind.
Now what? You know Stacey’s name, but are at a loss for words. Rather than jump to some of the trite go-to’s like “How’s the weather?” or “So, what do you do?” I’d suggest easing into it to try to build rapport and find kinship.
Ask a question like, “What brought you here tonight?” In many cases, their answer will illuminate a need or hope and you can build on that. Ideally, any question you ask will be open-ended enough that you can find clues off of which to build, and even better, see if you can help where they share about a need or want.
Here are 55 more questions to break the ice and really get to know someone.
Get comfortable with the location.
If the event is out-of-town, and that adds an extra layer of being daunting, take the unknown factor out and familiarize yourself with the location and venue. A Google image search might be all that it takes.
Better yet, at the event, asking other attendees about their favorite restaurants and local spots can be a great ice breaker, and even lead to their offering to show you around while you’re in town (which is a great way to deepen the initial connection).
If you are a local, this is a great time to show your expertise and share recommendations with people who are coming from out of town.
If everyone is local, but it’s a new venue to you, the same principles apply. Asking about it, its history, or use, is a great way to strike up conversation.
Research other attendees.
If the event gives you access to the list of attendees, you can research them on LinkedIn, read their articles, or check out their social media presence.
If they don’t have a list but have an app, see who else is coming. If there is a Meetup or Facebook event RSVP list, scrolling through those can do the trick.
This can be a great way to start a meaningful conversation about their brand, or discussing mutual connections you may have.
And a bonus of doing that is that you might find a familiar face which will give you some ease at the event.
Bring a wing-person.
Showing up alone and jumping in head first might be too much for you. If so, try to bring a friend or colleague so you can start your conversations together, and after you get eased in, break apart. An added benefit is that you are looking out for each other. So if I meet someone you should really know, I can introduce you, and vice-versa.
Set realistic goals.
Showing up and thinking you have to meet as many people as possible would stress anyone out.
Instead, set a more thoughtful expectation to meet 3–5 people and engage in a longer conversation with each.
This will allow you to have great conversations with a few people, instead of exhausting yourself by flitting from one to the next (and as a result, barely leaving an impression).
Arrive during “introvert hour.”
I call the first hour of networking events “introvert hour” because it isn’t busy yet, and this can be a great time to make some initial connections. Use your early conversations as springboards to meet more people later on as the room begins to fill up.
Starting to feel worn out? Excuse yourself to step outside, into the hall, or to the restroom. Take a breather, or give yourself a minute to tune out on your phone. Collect yourself, get your energy back up, and then go back in.
Position yourself for success.
Stand in high traffic areas where you are sure to catch someone looking for a conversation. Some of my favorites are caddy-corner to the bar or buffet exit, so that when someone leaves that station, they turn, and you greet them.
Another is close to registration, so as someone enters the space to figure out where to jump in, there you are!
Or, you can head to a table and know that someone will inevitably join you to take a load off or enjoy their food or drink.
Networking events are great relationship-building tools, so focus on the people in the room as people. Everyone heads to these events with the same goal of creating meaningful connections and meeting new people. If the group of people at one event isn’t inclusive or don’t align with your goals, it may be that the place or style of event doesn’t suit your needs. Don’t count out networking events as whole because of it: Research different event types and organizations to find ones that are aligned.
Originally published at www.forbes.com on May 28, 2018.