Though most people don’t believe me, I am far more comfortable delivering a speech at the front of a room than I am attempting to speak individually with people I don’t know. Here are a few tips that have worked for me when it comes to ‘working a room’ feel free to add some of your own in the comments section.
- Make one connection before the networking event. It always helps to know at least one other person in the room so it’s best to try to make a connection prior to the event. For instance, if your local Chamber of Commerce is hosting a networking event, stop by the Chamber office and introduce yourself. The Chamber staff is there to help business owners. They will often have at least one person available to speak with you and it’s often a staff member who will be attending the event. This way when you walk into the room, you’ll know at least one person. Be sure to ask the staff what other businesses within the group might be able to help you in your business. You’re looking for complementary businesses so you know whom you want to seek out at the event.
- Do something to calm your nerves before the event begins. For some people this might mean having a big breakfast or going for a run. For me, eating right before I do something that makes me anxious is out of the question. I eat lightly, if at all, right before a networking event and I take a few moments to relax before leaving my car once I’ve arrived. Sometimes the stress of traffic getting to an event can linger. It’s best to push the reset button before heading into another situation that causes you stress.
- Set a goal for connections at the event. A goal will make it more manageable, especially if your stress level rises while you’re there. Set the number before you walk into the event and give yourself permission to leave once you’ve spoken to, and exchanged business cards with, that number of people. Don’t make the number too large at first. You want to be able to accomplish this goal and thereby make it easier to attend the next event. When I first started going to networking events my goal was three. Currently, I strive for five. Eventually it will go higher but I had to get to a place where I could comfortably speak with three people each and every time before I raised the bar.
- Smile, smile, and smile. Once inside, it will seem impossible to meet the goal you just set in the parking lot. I know, I’ve been there, and as daunting as it seems at first it is possible to accomplish your goal. The key is to smile at everyone who looks in your direction. Eye contact and smiling tell them you are friendly, not standoffish. The key to starting a conversation is to look like someone people want to engage in conversation. Overcome your nerves by smiling, nodding, and saying hello to everyone who meets your gaze. This is faking it but it’s your best bet. This also means the other person will likely smile back, say hello, or otherwise invite you into the conversation. Often if there is a group and one member meets your eye they will make room for you within the group. By just talking to that one group, you may be able to meet your goal and be able to leave. Not everyone who meets your eye will invite you into his or her conversation. Try not to take that personally, as it could be that they are discussing something beyond casual small talk.
- Be sure to pay it forward. Once you’ve made a connection or two at an event, be sure to be on the lookout for others trying to come into your conversation. Just as you struggle to find a way in, so do many others. Be sure to smile and say hello to anyone who meets your gaze while you’re casually speaking to someone else. Invite them to join your conversation. You benefit from doing this in two ways. The new person is now one more in your goal number and they are likely to remember you at future events because you were welcoming to them. This will make it easier for both of you at the next networking event because you’ll know each other.