People who know me might be shocked, but I used to be a bit of a shy person. In fact, even though I am in charge of organizing large career networking events, I still sometimes freeze at these events, standing in a room filled with small groups of people talking with each other and not knowing what to say to them. But I do believe in the value of attending networking events anyway, because I have found them to be very effective in making connections, and my job in large part is about connecting people with one another. Part of my role in career services is to help individual job-seekers land jobs; and once they graduate and get a great job, they often feel some modicum of gratitude for what I’ve done to help them. Therefore, I can (and do) leverage this gratitude (or guilt) to try to get them to help other students from their school to land jobs. I also build relationships with non-alumni employers and introduce good candidates to them for particular jobs. To ensure I am always meeting the right people to help my job-seeking students and alumni, I must and do attend events.
How did I move from petrified wallflower to savvy(er) networker? A few things helped:
1. Practice. Not just any practice, but practice that actually gave me some feeling of success and built particular skills. I attended 12 weeks of Dale Carnegie Training on two occassions and team-taught it once, and one of the sessions focuses on specific topics to use when chatting with someone. It includes learning the other person’s name, where they are from or where they live (or how they got to the event), what they do for work, where they’ve travelled or lived, what they think of current events, and what they do for fun. All topics that can help a conversation continue when you’ve run out of ideas.
2. In addition to the topics above, I learned (through many networking workshops) specific tips about how to leverage an event, like how to make eye contact and smile, how to quickly introduce myself, and how to focus on the other person and be a good listener.
3. I leverage my nervousness. I have found that it’s much easier to approach someone who is also standing by him/herself rather than to try and insert myself into an ongoing conversation. I find that the folks who are also nervously hanging out by the refreshments, like me, make good conversation partners and have much to share.
4. I focus on others. Much of the time, my goal is not to make contacts for myself, but to ensure that everyone else is having a good time and making the contacts they need. I’ve been a party hostess since at least middle school and most of what I enjoy is making sure everyone else is having fun. So at networking events I like to try to introduce people to each other, which helps me not focus on my own nerves.
5. Last but not least, I’ve improved my boundaries. I used to not know how to politely extricate myself from an annoying conversation partner. Acknowledging them, thanking them for their time, and then explaining briefly that I need to move on has become easier as I’ve learned how to do this directly but without being rude.
What has helped you be more comfortable at networking events?