Last night, I attended Small Business BC’s Entrepreneur Showcase – an opportunity for entrepreneurs (as well as wannabe entrepreneurs such as myself) to mix and mingle, and learn from several successful entrepreneurs in a variety of fields.
Now, I’m not particularly fond of networking events – I usually avoid them like an airborne zombie plague. Entering a room full of strangers really intimidates me and I’ve never been comfortable making small-talk with people I don’t know. But I’m also a believer in getting out of your comfort zone and that practice makes perfect, so every now and then I force myself to take a leap, get out there, and network.
Here are my top five tips for getting the most out of networking events, even if you’re as shy and socially awkward as I am:
- Research. Find out all you can about the event you’ll be attending. What type of people will be attending? Will there be a keynote speaker? Will you be seated at a table or moving around a room? Are there specific times designated for networking in between other activities? Knowledge is power, and will reduce anxiety of the unknown.
- Go alone. Yes, most people will tell you to bring a friend along, so that you’ll have someone to talk to, but you know what happens? That friend becomes a safety net, and you’ll likely stick together at the exclusion of branching out and talking to other people, which is the entire point of networking in the first place.
- Have a plan. Come up with a couple of goals for the event. It doesn’t need to be anything huge, but it’s important to know what you want to accomplish. Depending on the event, I usually challenge myself to meet at least five new people, or to ask three people for their advice on a topic related to the event. For example, if the event is about social media for small business, I’ll try to ask three people how they use Facebook or Twitter to promote their company.
- Fake it ’til you make it. When you’re painfully shy, it often feels like everyone else in the room knows each other already, and it can be difficult to insert yourself into conversations without feeling like you’re interrupting. But the truth is that many of these people are in the same situation as you – they probably just met a few moments ago, even if it looks like they’ve been friends for life. The trick is to act confident and pretend that you’ve already met everyone. Skip the “Hi, what do you do?” formalities and dive right in to real conversation. Walk up to someone and ask what they thought of the speaker, or whether they had spotted anything interesting in the exhibits. They’ll never guess that you’re not as self-assured as you appear.
- Follow up. Social media makes this one a lot easier. Instead of letting business cards gather dust in a rolodex, the morning after a networking event, I pick two or three people that seemed interesting, and look them up on Twitter or LinkedIn. Even a quick e-mail to let them know that I enjoyed meeting them can foster that connection, without being pushy.
I promise, it gets (a little) easier with time and practice. Now get out there and network!