Five Networking Tips to Embrace the Awkward and Connect with Ease
Several years ago I attended an event where one of the panel speakers described networking as a dirty word.
Networking gets a bad reputation because people associate it with:
- Awkward chit chat with strangers.
- People trying to sell you things you don’t want.
- Exchanging business cards with people you’ll never talk to again.
The pandemic hasn’t made it easier, with the NY Times reporting We’re All Socially Awkward Now and HBR reporting that the average employee’s network has shrunk over the last year.
I’m the rare introvert who loves networking. I didn’t always feel this way, but I’ve introduced myself to enough strangers that I no longer find it terrifying.
It’s not because I don’t experience awkward moments (there are plenty), or that I haven’t been pitched services I don’t want (I have) - it’s because I no longer fear the awkward moments.
I created a five-part framework called C.A.L.M.S. to help anxious and out-of-practice networkers relearn how to talk to each other. With the world reopening and many people attending in-person events again, these five skills can help you overcome fears, brush up on your conversation skills, and make better connections.
According to anxiety expert and TED speaker Judson Brewer, curiosity moves you out of anxiety and into wonder. When you’re curious about other people, it’s easier to get out of your head and connect with other people. And when you strategically activate other people’s curiosity, it makes the process easier.
A few years ago. I showed up at an event in a brightly colored vintage dress. Breaking New York City's all-black-all-the-time dress code felt daring at the time. But I had no shortage of people to talk to because people came to talk to me. I didn’t have to approach strangers and start conversations because the conversations came to me.
I retired my black power outfits and made bright colors and bold prints my signature look. Standing out might seem counter intuitive when you’d rather stay home, but imagine how much easier networking would be if you alleviated the anxiety of approaching strangers and starting conversations.
[Related: The Introvert's Guide to Public Speaking]
If you’ve done any amount of networking, you’ve probably had dead-end conversations that sound like this:
Hi, I’m Madeline, what do you do?
This is my least favorite way to start a conversation because it puts one person on the defensive trying to sum up 10, 20, or 30 years of professional expertise in a 30-second pitch. And it makes the other person feel like they’re being sold to when they just came for the wine and cheese.
If you encounter someone who’s not feeling talkative, you might get a four-word answer (“I’m a financial planner”), sending you back to square one trying to light the spark of conversation.
Not all questions are created equal and this is where a little planning can go a long way. These are three questions to get you started:
- What brought you to this event?
- What new hobbies did you pick up during the pandemic?
- What do you love about your work?
There’s a mistaken idea that you have to say the perfect thing or deliver the perfect pitch in order to be a good networker. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The beauty of networking is you don’t have to do all the talking. Once you ask a question, you should listen.
Unfortunately, we often get stuck in our head planning what to say and miss the details that allow us to really connect.
In order to strike a balance between talking and listening, Susan McPherson, author of The Lost Art of Connecting, suggests mastering the event triumvirate: Meet three people, learn three new ideas, and share three things.
While she suggests this strategy specifically for introverts, I think it could work for everyone, provided the introverts lean into sharing three things and the extroverts lean into learning three things.
Whether you find networking compelling, curious, or cringeworthy depends on your perspective. You can spend your time fearing the awkward or you can embrace it as part of the experience.
When I was a book publicist earlier in my career, I dreaded going to live events because I didn’t know how to connect and I didn’t have a strategy to start conversations.
What I’ve learned almost 20 years later is that mindset changes everything. If you show up to events with the intention to meet interesting people, you will meet interesting people. You might exchange awkward chit-chat, listen to a boring panel, or eat sweaty cheese (at least in pre-COVID times), but none of those need to detract from meeting interesting people.
Someday, those interesting people might refer clients, buy your services, or recommend you for your next opportunity.
The best way to connect and find common ground is through stories. The human brain is programmed to remember stories. But you want to make sure you’re sharing the right story.
You don’t need to tell people your entire life story, nor do you need to restrict your stories solely to work. Several years ago I was at an event for Ellevate Network, and our name tags had conversation starters. Mine said, “What’s the title of your biography?”
When I approached a small group of people, someone asked, “What’s the title of your book?” I answered, "Small Town Girl in the Big City." This started a long conversation about my childhood growing up on a farm in rural West Virginia and how I came to live in Brooklyn.
Unfortunately, not all events have helpful conversation starters on the name tags (although I think they should) or skillful facilitators that can bring that kind of connection to Zoom. However, with a little planning, practice, and curiosity, you can transform networking from excruciating to engaging.
[Related: Curiosity: Let It Be Your Guide]
Madeline Schwarz helps quiet leaders speak up in a world of loud talkers and helps corporate teams articulate their vision in clear, concise messaging. Madeline is on a mission to bring more voices to the table and has worked with professionals at Mastercard, Etsy, The Jewish Museum, Mt. Sinai and PVH Corp. When she's not coaching or facilitating workshops, you can find her roaming art museums, playing legos with her 7-year old and creating playful ways to make communication more fun.
Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.
Communication + Career Coach
Madeline Schwarz Coaching
I help quiet leaders speak up in a world of loud talkers and I help organizations articulate their vision in clear, concise messaging. I work with introverts and professionals across industries who want to: - increase their stage presence - create presentations that stand out - connect with any audience at any time - lead their team with authority and empathy - get over their fears and share their message Through coaching and training, I have worked with employees at... Continue Reading
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