When I say the phrase “networking event,” what thoughts and emotions come to mind? After working for nearly five years in the corporate world, it was easy for me to forget just how frightening and off-putting the sound of a “networking event” can truly be. The word “networking” evokes a formal, stressful conversation – a conversation where you have the potential to gain a fruitful, personal or professional connection if you manage to use the proper words with the right person.
During a recent diversity mixer I hosted in Austin, TX, an attendee brought up the topic of branding events with the dreaded “networking” headline. She mentioned how intimidating the thought of networking can be, and that it can be a deterrent for some people who might otherwise attend an event. This was an incredibly powerful takeaway for me. I regularly plan events in my line of work, and since I understand the power of building a strong network, I frequently use the word “networking” as I build event agendas.
This reminder will certainly change the way I brand events in the future. While I still believe ample networking opportunities are critical to the success of any event, choosing a different word like “mix” or “connect” can dramatically reframe the way attendees perceive that part of the agenda. Removing the fear factor and priming attendees for building connections is the driver to building a strong community. Anyone who organizes events, meetups, or conferences should take this simple switch into consideration, as I believe it can open doors to all types of new audiences – particularly those who are earlier in career and/or more introverted.
As I thought more about the topic of networking, I remembered my senior year of college when I was invited to interview for some intimidatingly large companies and organizations. Since I majored in psychology and had no formal training or education in the area of business, the word “networking” did not immediately invoke fear. I was not too familiar with the process of networking, and when I saw the word listed in agendas for pre-interview dinners and events, I thought of it as nothing more than a conversation opportunity. This mindset is one of the reasons I believe I was successful in many job interviews. Fear and intimidation did not prevent me from having normal, casual conversations with my interviewers – allowing us to have natural, free-flowing discussions about my experiences and career interests. However, this mindset evolved when I began my career in the tech industry. In a matter of months, the exposure to business terminology and a corporate culture changed my perception and understanding of the importance of networking.
Soon, I realized how successfully networking could propel my career forward. I began to better understand the intricacies of how valuable, memorable conversations could impact me, and my level of intimidation increased. Familiarity with the corporate matrix and organization structure caused me to tense up in the presence of leaders, and I had to re-train myself to keep cool and remember how I behaved as a college student – approaching every conversation with a casual and friendly flair.
Though my understanding of networking has evolved, I have used the same formula in my conversations with new people since I was a student:
Three Basic Steps to Network Successfully and Fearlessly:
- When planning to organize or attend an event, study the list of attendees and speakers.
- In advance of an event, learn everything you can about the people you want to meet.
- Introduce yourself to the individuals you want to meet at the event (without interrupting another pair’s conversation), and start a natural conversation. Do not immediately delve into business or work topics. Be personable!
If you want to be as relaxed as possible when meeting new people, doing your research is a critical first step. While many “chance meetings” result in fruitful connections, it is imperative to understand and familiarize yourself with the who’s who at every event. This will allow you to prioritize the people you meet. Next, prepare to approach every conversation warmly, casually, and personably. When I first met a Microsoft recruiter and shared my resume, he noticed that I studied abroad in Norway. He asked if I spoke Norwegian,, and I responded “Jeg snakker lite Norsk” (I speak a little Norwegian). This was the spark that ignited our conversation, and it had nothing to do with technology or business. The anecdotes and fun stories are what make conversations memorable. These memories are ultimately what encourage others to interact and work with you in the future. This suggestion can help anyone, with any level of shyness or introversion, have successful first meetings with new people.
Recently, I asked my Twitter followers to suggest topics for a blog post, and one topic that came up was “how to network when you are an introvert.” The best advice I can give is to follow the 3 steps I shared above – do your research and approach every conversation personably and casually. The latter piece of advice is particularly relevant to those prone to networking jitters even when they have sufficiently researched their desired connections. In my job, I speak to hundreds of tech experts as I attend technical conferences around the region. Some of the folks I meet are interested in the program I lead, and when they meet me, they begin to list the qualifications and contributions that would make them a good fit for the program. While this is a natural reaction since we have a limited amount of 1:1 time to speak, my most memorable conversations begin with a topic unrelated to work, business, or other professional matters. Of course, in a subsequent conversation, it makes sense to have these discussions, but the first meeting is usually not the best opportunity.
As a believer in the power of conversation, we all have the opportunity to provide a safe and comfortable environment for ourselves and for others to build connections. It is important to be mindful of the way we brand these connection opportunities, and to come at each conversation in a relaxed manner. This takes time and practice, but I am confident that anyone who aspires to be a fearless networker can achieve their goal, and enjoy all of the benefits that being well connected can offer!