To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of networking events. For one, talking to that many people in one sitting is a huge energy drain. And for another, it’s much more difficult to build relationships based off a short conversation at a networking event. These things are kind of like meet markets. Meat Markets. Get it? Yeah, y’all get it.
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All that being said, you can still make these things work for you and derive value from attending. Now I’m not talking work events where you at least know your coworkers, I’m talking straight networking events-- like a Young Professionals of X Town or something where you’ll likely not know anybody else.
Nerve-wracking? Yes. But with the following tips you can rock these things and no one will ever know you’d rather be at home watching Netflix with a glass of wine and a giant bowl of popcorn.
Set a time limit.
You don’t have to stay from start to finish. Set a reasonable time limit, anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Just make sure you're listening to your inner self. If 2 hours sounds like a nightmare then for the love of your mental health please don't set 2 hours as your goal.
Setting a limit forces you to stay on task and also gives you a light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who hate these things: "Only 20 minutes left until Netflix time!"
Set a goal.
Wandering into one of these events without a specific plan in mind will spell disaster. So unless you’re super extroverted and absolutely love meeting tons of new people just for the fun of it, you’ll probably be miserable and feel like you have nothing to show for all that talking effort.
Set a goal of speaking with a limited number of people and getting a specific amount of business cards. Make these numbers reasonable for yourself. There’s absolutely no need to expect to walk out with every single attendee’s contact information. You’d probably never email any of those people again even if you did.
I usually make it 3. Yeah. It sounds low, but then I can concentrate on making those 3 conversations really great. If you walk away with even just one solid contact with whom you’ll actually follow up, the event was a success.
Use the 3 Question Rule.
This rule seriously helped out my shy undergrad self when getting into networking for the first time. It’s as simple as it sounds: when you get into conversation with someone, ask three relevant open-ended questions.
These are not yes-or-no questions, but something about the other person or a follow up to something they said (“How did you get into X profession?” or “You mentioned you’re into backpacking, where have you traveled?”). This will keep them talking about themselves (something people LOVE to do) and voila, the conversation keeps going.
Bonus for shy people: this means the onus of the conversation is on the other person and not yourself. Plus the person will walk away feeling like they just had a great conversation.
The art of the exit.
Okay, so you’ve mastered your expectations and had some great conversations. Now it’s time to figure out how to leave a conversation. If you keep somebody around for too long it can get awkward-- you guys are practically strangers, after all. This part used to stress me out so much because I was worried about being rude.
But have no fear! It’s actually really easy. This is the simplest way I’ve found to politely exit a conversation:
“It was so great meeting you! Do you have a business card? I’d love to follow up with you.”
Get their card, thank them, smile, and walk away. It may feel more complicated than this at the time, but remember it’s a networking event-- people are literally there for short conversations. They’re not going to judge you for moving on to the next one.