How to network without feeling like an idiot

Feeling awkward at networking events, or other occasions involving relative strangers, seems to be fairly common. I’ve certainly felt that way, and still do sometimes, although much less than I used to.

I’m not an expert by any means, nor do I always practice what I preach, but I’ve given the whole thing a fair bit of thought, and now seems a good time to share that given that my first event in a while is coming up on 6 February. 

First steps

Before I go any further, there are some basics to highlight. Some of this isn’t directly related to attending events, but is all part of the networking lark. Nor is it all essential for everyone – but anyone whose employment depends directly or indirectly on new business needs to do more than others.

  1. Have a decent Linked In profile. It’s easy to do and if you’re not sure it’s easy to find a guide online. I’ve put this as number one quite deliberately as I feel it’s an important one to get right.
  2. Have a digital footprint that isn’t just a personal Facebook page. There will be a social network that suits you, whether its Twitter, Pinterest, FourSquare, Google+, Flickr, a blog or whatever. (It doesn’t have to be about work, but make sure it’s not detrimental to your professional life!)
  3. Manage your contacts. Linked In can be a useful phone/email directory, but it’s not foolproof, so you really do need to record and maintain details for yourself.
  4. Remember to take business cards out of the drawer and use them at events!
  5. Be bothered. Look for events or opportunities and go to them. I don’t just mean PR events. Find other relevant gatherings where you can broaden your network. Buying decisions aren’t always made by the comms people, or just by the comms people, that you’re already used to dealing with.
  6. When you do go, don’t just speak to your colleagues or people you know already. Okay, sometimes that will be fine. But in many networking situations that’s going to be of absolutely no value to you at all.

The difficult part

There are probably a few people who are effortless social butterflies. I suspect most of us find it difficult to some degree, even when it appears to others as if we don’t. I’ve certainly found myself reaching for my phone and using it as a crutch to feel less like a lonely idiot when I’ve been in-between conversations or building up to speaking to someone who doesn’t know me from Adam.

Here are some of the things that have worked for me.

  1. Don’t use your phone as a crutch! It’s too easy to retreat into the screen and not make the effort. It also discourages other people from approaching you.
  2. Look out for other people on their own. Most will welcome someone else taking the first step and be relieved not to be a singleton.
  3. Join a conversation, even if that means an awkward 30 seconds while people finish what they’re saying before they acknowledge your presence. For all you know, one or more of those already talking to each other are delighted to be joined by someone else.Think about those times when you’ve wished someone else would join a conversation you’re in to allow for a change of subject or even an escape altogether. (What’s dull and irrelevant to one person might be fascinating and valuable to another.)
  4. Be curious. It’s much more important to be interested in others than expect them to be interested in you.

It’s also worth remembering that most people who turn up to events are essentially nice, normal human beings and often want to meet new folk themselves.

Leaving a conversation

This can be tricky, especially when we’re all so damned polite and reserved (on the whole). [BTW – this section has been mischievously mocked by some of my friends, yet if it’s so obvious why do people complain so much about getting stuck in conversations they felt they couldn’t leave?!]

If it’s specifically a networking event it can be easier, as it’s expected that people will move around rather than stand all night and speak to the same person. No-one has yet hit me or blackened my name on Twitter (that I’m aware of) because I said it was nice to meet them but that I’d like to meet other people too.

Giving people your business card – or asking for theirs – can be a useful prompt and allow either of you to break off the conversation. (You don’t have to, of course.)

Other ‘excuses’ for leaving a conversation, if you feel unhappy being direct, can be that you promised someone else there that you see them, that you need some water, that you need to take a quick break, or that you needed to return a call.

When things go wrong

Unfortunately, some people are morons. Actually, what’s more likely is that they aren’t particular comfortable or confident themselves and this manifests itself as rudeness or indifference.

I’ve been in situations where I felt as welcome as Billy Connolly’s proverbial fart in a spacesuit. Really, though, that was more about them than it was about me. The only thing to do is move on. So long as you haven’t done anything daft, the moment is likely to stick in your mind longer than it will theirs. And what’s the point in wasting mental energy on someone else’s problems.

Remembering people

Ah – the worst aspect of all and the area where I have little advice to offer. It’s the dreaded business of forgetting people’s faces and names.

It happens to me all the time and frequently where I know perfectly well who the person is, just to be hit with a mental block that leaves me wishing the ground would swallow me up.

Conscious of this, I try to avoid the problem for others by introducing myself when there’s the possibility they might not remember me, e.g. if we’ve only met once or twice before or we’ve bumped into each other in an unexpected context / location.

If you have forgotten someone, there are only two options:

  1. Busk it, and hope that either your memory returns quickly or you can get through the conversation without revealing your ignorance.
  2. Confess and blurt out an embarrassed apology, blaming the situation, tiredness, your generally poor memory or whatever.

The first can be a high-risk strategy, so use with caution. The usual response when you own up to your ignorance, I find, is that people tell you about a recent occasion when exactly the same thing happened to them.

I can say with certainty that I will meet people on 6 February who remember who I am while I, regrettably, will have forgotten their name or even meeting them before. Let me apologise to them in advance; it’s nothing personal!

Anything I missed?

I hope all this has been of some use, and it would be great to hear if other people have other tips. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of decent advice available on the interweb, but these are worth a read:

All that remains for me to say is: sorry, who are you again?


2 Comments on “How to network without feeling like an idiot”

  1. Craig McGill says:

    I’m sure we met once but this is a great blog and I hope we meet at a networking event sometime.

    ps – basic biology/pupillometrics tip – when you busk it trying to remember someone’s name, your pupils give you away. In most people your pupils will move from their normal state to either grow or shrink depending on how well you like or don’t like a person. So if you meet someone you can’t remember one of two things can give you away: your eyes remain the same or they slightly contract as you try to remember if you know them (most humans are subconsciously suspicious of people until they know them. It’s an evolved trait, yet not one we have as children).

    Here’s the kicker: if your pupils dilate towards a person when you meet them, unless they really hate you, their eyes will dilate too because at a subconscious level, the eye (and brain) are attracted to dilated eyes.

    One other tip I would add – if going to an event and it has a hashtag/Facebook page/anything like that, look at it and see who is going, see who you want to talk to, what topics might come up. Equally, research people to see what they are interested in so that if you do meet so and so you know not to talk about Hearts because they are an Airdrie fan and so on.

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