Not everyone is a natural-born networker. For many, there is something inauthentic or insincere about networking. The concept conjures images of unctuous salesmen thrusting themselves upon unwitting bystanders and smothering them with a steady stream of puffery aimed at flattering them into buying or doing something that is unnecessary and often not in their best interest.
For others of us, especially those who tend to be more introverted, the prospect of attending a networking event can be downright terrifying. We just assume have our teeth pulled as be obligated to initiate conversations with a room full of strangers. But networking doesn’t have to be like going to the dentist, and you don’t have to abandon all dignity and becomes a slimy salesperson to be good at it. The key is to follow the six Ps and be positive, prepared, polished, professional, personable and productive:
It’s not easy to initiate conversation with people we don’t know. It takes a lot of energy to engage others in conversation – especially for introverts. Because behavior tends to fall in line behind attitude and mood, it is critical to psych yourself up in advance of each major networking opportunity, be it a job fair, tradeshow, or business social. Negativity is self-defeating. It takes confidence to risk rejection and put yourself out there. Insecurity and cynicism will turn minor social setbacks into insurmountable obstacles that discourage you from pushing through. The fact is that most people in most networking situations are friendly and approachable, and many feel equally hesitant to initiate conversation. Knowing this should inspire confidence and make you eager to get out there and take the lead.
Prepare and practice a brief elevator speech to introduce yourself to others. This will provide an opening and prevent you from becoming tongue-tied. Having “stock” questions or predetermined conversation pieces in mind ahead of time can also help minimize social discomfort and awkward silences. Do your homework and find out who will be in attendance in advance. If there is a speaker or a theme, read up about them to establish a working knowledge that can become the foundation for engaging conversation.
Mind your appearance and be sure to pay special attention to required dress code. For better or worse, first impressions carry a lot of weight. Our attire, hygiene, and overall level of attentiveness to our appearance says a lot about our professionalism and how seriously we take ourselves and others. Inappropriate dress or a less than adequate attention to personal hygiene will be off-putting at best, and can be downright egregious.
When we find ourselves in networking situations, it is critical to pay heed to the basics of social and business etiquette. Avoid discussing controversial topics such as politics, race and religion, or things that might make others uncomfortable. You should also be mindful not to interrupt or butt into others’ conversations. If food and beverages are being served, be sure to eat and drink in moderation. While alcohol can be an excellent social lubricant, it can also suppress the social and personal inhibitions that keep our baser impulses in check, making it easier for us to say or do things that others might find rude or offensive. Remember, your inappropriate or offensive behavior not only reflects negatively on you, but on your co-workers, supervisor and organization as well.
At its core, networking is about forging and maintaining relationships. The key is to be friendly and approachable, so that others feel comfortable opening up to you. Take the initiative to approach others and introduce yourself. Ask them open-ended questions and listen attentively to their responses. People feel comfortable and enjoy talking about themselves, and will be flattered if you show a genuine interest in them and their work. If you find they are reluctant to open up, tell them about yourself, your interests and your passions. You’ll often uncover common ground that will make it easier for them to share information about themselves. If an individual does not respond to your introduction in the manner you hoped for or expected, don’t take it personally. Just move on.
Networking is a great way to find a job, gain allies, and uncover new business and career opportunities. The key is understanding what you are hoping to accomplish. Scan the room and seek out individuals who are not already engaged in conversation. You might consider heading towards the registration desk, the bar, or the buffet, where it will be easy to strike up a conversation with others waiting in line. Once you engage people in conversation, listen carefully for opportunities. Determine what they might do for you and what you can do for them, and be sure to obtain their business card so that you can follow-up.