There are a lot of things I didn’t know when I first started networking. One of them was to assume that people wanted to talk with me. Who me? I grew up fairly shy, in fact I stuttered into my adulthood. Conversations for me were painful, and often filled with long silences as I struggled to speak were even more painful.
This is the main thing I discovered about learning to speak with people I didn’t know: It’s all about me, and it’s all about them (and not so much about me).
How is it all about me? Let me explain. I could make a choice to talk no matter what—to act as if I had something to say, even if, in the moment, I didn’t believe it. And let me tell you, there were days when it worked for me, and days when I wanted to give up.
But, you see, my desire to communicate was stronger than my fear of looking stupid or silly or whatever my mind made up that I thought people were thinking. The key was, they weren’t thinking about me—I was the one obsessing about me. They were thinking about themselves. It was my decision how I was going to be, and what I was going to get out of my interactions with others. It could be painful or it could be interesting.
In talking openly about the difficulty of meeting new people, I also learned that my new friends were just as worried about how they appeared and sounded as I was. How freeing.
What I began to discover about me was this: I had a burning desire to communicate, to connect with others, to feel I belonged–and I made a key, transformative decision that I was going to communicate. Period. I would be heard, and I would belong. I had a vision for myself, and that led me to asking myself some very good questions.
Some of the questions: So how did the people that seemed so at ease meeting people, do it? First, I think they were just more practiced at it than I was. I started observing the ones that were good at it, and worked on my own social intelligence by doing personal growth work. I got feedback on how I was, and learned what I could do to change the way I was being with people, less self-conscious and more aware of them. I also started challenging the “stinking thinking” I had about myself, and what I had to offer, and developed new patterns of thinking about myself. I learned to be curious about others, going into networking events and into luncheons with an expectation that I was going to meet some cool new friends. And, of course, with that attitude, I did.
What was important was I decided to stop labeling myself as a stutterer, instead, began thinking of myself as one who had speech disfluencies. Through my research I found that everyone has disfluencies in speech. No one has perfect speech. I wasn’t the outcast I thought I was! (A little dramatic, don’t you think?) And, bottomline, I absolutely do have something to say. I have found that I like meeting people, and making new friends. Someone once said, “to make good friends, be a good friend,” and I’ve found that to be true.
I’ve been fine-tuning my networking skills now for about 30 years — in fact, I run a weekly networking calendar in Chicago, the Canright Calendar — so I’ve developed some reliable strategies when one is first testing the networking waters.
So when you’re looking at your watch, your cell phone, or your food, hoping that someone might approach you at your next event, remember that you are in the driver’s seat. You don’t need to wait for someone else to make the first move. Here are a few of my networking tips to consider for both networking novices and mavens alike.
1. Check in with the host. If you know the host, great. You’re at a major advantage. It’s totally appropriate to ask the host who you should meet. You can even ask him or her to introduce you to a group of people. A good host will oblige without batting an eye. Just make sure you aren’t swamping the host with a request at a busy time, like registration. And, if you don’t know the host, introduce yourself and thank her or him for having the event.
2. Pretend to be the host. No, we don’t mean put on a faulty name tag and imposter the host. (Silly you!) Instead, go to the event with the intention of acting as a host would act. Introduce yourself to various groups, make sure everyone is having a good time and feel free to bounce from person to person. It’s called “owning the event.” (I give credit to the Wright Foundation for this exceptional strategy.)
I also like to look for people who are standing by themselves. Networking introverts appreciate someone who breaks the ice and starts up a conversation—and I remember what it felt like standing there by myself looking for a way to jump into a conversation. If I’m standing in a group, and notice a person standing outside the group, I will usually turn to him or her and introduce myself, effectively opening up the circle of people–giving the individual a chance to “break in.” This leads to the next tip.
3. Don’t stand with people you know. It’s natural to gravitate towards people you know, but at a networking event the objective is to make new connections. Standing around with your group leads to more standing around with your group. I’m not telling you to shun your friends or colleagues, but hanging around them means less time to meet new people. Say hello, and then move along. You can talk to your friends when you’re not doing your job, which by the way, is networking when you’re at a business event.
4. Give yourself a goal. One of the best ideas for meeting new people at a networking event is to create a goal before you go. I give myself a number, let’s say five, and that’s how many new people I aim to meet. Having a goal in mind can be very motivating, and it really lights a fire under me to make a few more connections before the event concludes. Watch out for the tendency to just meet the goal and collect cards. You want to have a meaningful conversation with your new-found connection, not just a number to add to your total. (These are people we’re talking about here, my friend.)
5. Great speaker or engaging listener? Nobody’s perfect, and nobody will expect you to be when you spark a conversation. Don’t feel like you need the perfect opening line. You’ll make a better connection with someone if you can be an engaging listener rather than a dominant conversationalist. Ask questions. Learn about people. If they want to know more about you and what you do, trust me, they’ll ask.
If you’re nervous about breaking the ice, one thing I do is to introduce myself, and be curious and friendly. You might ask them why they came to this particular event. Or ask if they’ve heard about the speaker. The point is to be sincerely interested. Go into every event with an open mind. It takes the pressure off you, allows you to enjoy yourself, and you never know who that person might know and what road the conversation might lead you down.