Remember the lyrics from the 1985 hit song by singer, Robert Palmer, You’re Addicted to Love? “Your heart sweats, your body shakes, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat, your throat is tight.” While this song became a huge hit, this physiological reaction could aptly describe what happens with many of us at the thought of networking. We all know we should network, and there are countless reasons for doing so but, nevertheless, the physical anxiety remains.
So be honest with yourself about how comfortable you are with networking. On a scale of 1-10, most of us would never say we’re a ten, or even an eight for that matter. If we were, social anxiety wouldn’t rank as one of life’s top five fears.
Perhaps it’s easier to think of what’s in it for them (WIIFT) to help manage the reactions. Many professionals nowadays have been in career transition and they remember the kindness of others, so paying it forward is part of their mantra. Others talk about the opportunity to gather market intelligence, as a way to stay current, to learn from others, to uncover great talent, or to just be helpful. So with this being said, receptivity is fairly high for most professionals.
Choosing the right context is helpful. Being clear about your purpose is the best place to start. Are you looking to network with professionals in your field? Customers? Community leaders? It all starts with understanding your purpose. From there, you can ask others, read business publications that have events listed or check online resources.
When attending an event, preparation before you arrive is key. Is the attendee list available? Who would you like to acknowledge? Who would you like to meet? Event organizers can be incredibly helpful making connections. What does your elevator speech sound like? If it’s filled with buzz words from your field, consider having a layman’s version so others can easily understand your message. Of course, depending on your audience, it may indeed be very appropriate.
If possible, plan to arrive about 15 minutes prior to the event kickoff. Nametag placement (right side of your jacket) makes it easier for others to see and remember your name, especially when shaking hands. It’s much easier to walk into a room of a few people than a full room. Make sure your business cards can be easily given and you aren’t fumbling. I’ve learned that I can’t eat, drink and shake hands, so usually I stick with water. Your approachability will be enhanced if you aren’t checking your iPhone. Let’s face it, if you’re checking your phone it means you’re busy and others will not want to interrupt.
What to initially say is relatively simple. Conversation starters may be “what brings you here this evening?” to “how did you get into your field?” I met a woman at a professional event by admiring her handbag. She was proud to tell me the story of how she came to own it and now we’ve become friends. Reading the newspapers offers a great place to build your knowledge base of conversation starters. The news offers stories about business, communities, sports and human interest which are all sources to begin a dialog. During the holiday season, many of us wear ties or scarves which become great conversation starters. And needless to say, a friendly smile goes a long way to draw others to you to engage in conversation.
The goal of small talk is to make others feel comfortable, not to impress. Stay away from controversial topics. Be prepared to be interrupted by others joining the conversation and be ready to be introduced to others as well.
Be mindful of the following networking traps:
While practice doesn’t always make perfect, practice can help you develop the skills and techniques to alleviate the physical anxiety. A good rule of thumb is to capture what went well so you’re prepared to replicate it next time.
So next time you hear Robert Palmer sing his infamous song, don’t believe that the lyrics apply to networking!
Lauri Ann Plante, MSOD, SPHR
Vice President & Regional Leader, Client Services