We all know that building new relationships is crucial when it comes to our careers, yet most of us suffer from one form or another of “networking anxiety”. Some people are shy and get nerve-wracked at the thought of approaching a stranger, others dread it because they get bored having to listen to hundreds of different stories. And who could blame them? Out of all the new people you have met at professional events, how many actually developed into real give-and-take relationships down the line? Even if you aren’t shy or bored easily, no doubt the weak return on investment of your time and money can be irritating. Why not try distracting yourself from your pesky emotions by gamifying it?
Games are all about strategy. Before attending professional events, have a look at the guest list, if there is one. Without going into stalker mode, Google the people who are coming, connecting faces with names. Map out who could be interesting to approach and figure out a few icebreakers for each one. Imagine the time and energy saved by focusing just on people relevant to your goals! Also try to find commonalities between you and a person of interest. Not so much to make yourself intriguing, but to subtly indicate that you have good reasons to stay in touch. According to Dorie Clark in the Harvard Business Review: “If you can make it clear to them where you can contribute the most, you’re making their lives easier”. It will also help psych you up if you are lacking confidence – prove to yourself that you are as useful to them as they to you. However, there is a difference between research and stalking, so only use what the person themselves gives in their public profiles.
Most of us find it hard to work up the courage to talk to more than one or two people per event. In Forbes.com, author Jacobs Morgan says “You will find that the more you get out of your comfort zone the more opportunities you will find in your professional and personal life”. Think of events as game levels, and each new level provides more challenge than the last. For example, if you talked to two people at the last event, at the next event speak to four, and so on. If you really need motivation and distraction from your nerves, only allow yourself to approach the buffet or get a second drink once you have achieved a preset goal. Get into the mindset of seeing a challenge, conquering it, then rewarding yourself.
While it is important to avoid being a creepy stalker, don’t be afraid to ask people about their family or hobbies in the right context. Get a feel for the person. Are they extroverted? Chances are they will be open to mixing professional and personal subjects. Are they more distant and formal? Probably safer to avoid any questions about their kids, but you might see them perk up if you mention one of their hobbies. Understanding their point of view is crucial to forming even a fleeting bond with them.
Points for the Small Wins
There is no “best place” to connect with people. Practice talking to strangers outside of traditional networking events or business meetings. Get comfortable chatting with cashiers and giving strangers simple, innocuous compliments (“I like your sweater!”). Build up your small-talk skills by downloading the CityHour app and use it to find someone with whom you have commonalities or shared objectives. Set up a quick coffee at a time when you know you’ll be feeling confident (e.g. after the gym). Again, gamify getting to know strangers and be positive about each level you achieve.
There Are No Losers
Keep in mind that we can’t win every time. Obviously every contact you make won’t turn into a fruitful, long-term relationship. But each time you reach out to someone you don’t know, you develop your small-talk skills and will be more prepared for the day that you meet your Big Fish. Networking is simply an exchange of ideas and stories between people and each opportunity helps you refine your game, bringing you closer to becoming a champion.