The scene at the GeekWire Anniversary Bash last month. Photo: Kyle Kesterson

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who look forward to networking events and those who would rather have a root canal than attend one.

I feel fortunate to fall into the former camp, but I can certainly empathize with those in the latter.

Whether hitting the networking scene is an official part of your job or just something you know you *should* be doing, you’ll get better results if you have a game plan for your next event. Allow me to share mine.

1. Ditch your friends.

It sounds downright mean, but attending events with people you already know is a recipe for networking failure. Back in the day, I recruited a buddy to go with me to every event and conference.

Then, one day I found myself at a show where I didn’t know a soul, and ended up making more meaningful connections in those two days than I ever thought possible. When you’re solo, you’re more inclined to start chatting with new people.

You don’t have to worry about whether your wing man is being properly included in conversations. You can go with the flow and focus on the best way to approach your most meaningful targets. If you shudder at the thought of going it alone, try cutting your teeth by talking to the always-friendly event sponsors.

2. Ditch your pitch.

All of us have experienced that moment at an event when we realize that the person we’re talking to is actually just trying to sell us something. Suddenly, a switch flips and we start scanning the room to map out an escape plan. Instead of trying to work your pitch into the conversation, simply try to be your most interested and interesting self. Not to say you can’t share a little nugget about what you do.

On the contrary, if it leaves them wanting to know more, you have a great excuse to touch base again. At the very least, your chances of boring someone to death go down drastically. If you meet me at an event, you’re going to have to work pretty hard to get me to talk about what our online project management software does.

There’s a time and a place for that kind of shop talk, and networking events are neither. Your focus should instead be on finding and getting to know people that you can help, or that can help you, in some way. After that, it’s all in the follow up.

3. Grab a drink.

Grab a cocktail at your next networking event. Photo: Richard Lambert
Grab a cocktail at your next networking event. Photo: Richard Lambert

Heading to the bar gives you a chance to survey the event’s landscape. You can inevitably engage in conversations with your fellow bar-goers about how long the line is, how stingy the organizers are with drink tickets, and whether you’ve tried the local microbrew they’re serving.

If you’re trapped in an unfortunate conversation, getting a drink is a perfectly acceptable exit strategy.

And like it or not, no one likes a party pooper, so loosen up and have some fun. Even if you don’t drink, a club soda with lime can give people the illusion that you’re the life of the party.

4. State your name.

If you have trouble with names, have no fear. You’re not alone. When you encounter people you’ve met but can’t quite place, walk directly up to them with a handshake and offer your own name. They’re probably suffering from the same affliction and will appreciate the chance to start again with a clean slate.

5. Find common ground.

It’s a small world, after all. If you’re at an event with someone, odds are good that you have something – or someone—in common. The trick is finding that something fast, and using it as a jumping off point for a great conversation.

Maybe you both work in Pioneer Square or live in Ballard or have a teenager or a Windows phone or an obsession with The Walking Dead. Identifying any one of those things could lead to an infinite number of topics for discussion. Sniffing out that common ground is simple. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Learn about the people in your community, and very soon you’ll be an integral part of that community.

6. Wrap it up.

All good things must come to an end. For many people, closing conversations smoothly is even harder than starting them. When the person you’re talking to starts to look distracted or there are pauses in the chatter, it’s time to move on. In my opinion, graceful goodbyes have three parts:

1)     The Segue: “You know, I actually need to run to the restroom/go relieve the babysitter/say hi to my friend over there.”

2)     The Acknowledgement: “It was so great talking with you.”

3)     The Next Step: “Let’s definitely grab a coffee/ find each other at the next event/connect on LinkedIn.”

I won’t claim that anyone can be converted from a networking hater to a social butterfly overnight, but maybe over time you’ll find that this cloud, too, has a silver lining.

Liz Pearce is CEO of LiquidPlanner, a Seattle online project management startup. When she’s not managing her startup or cooking for her family, she’s Tweeting @lizprcPreviously on GeekWire from Liz PearceWork-life balance hacks: Six tips from a type-A control freak

Editor’s note: If you’re interested in networking events in the Pacific Northwest, check out the new GeekWire Events calendar here.

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  • Kyle Kesterson

    Some nice points here, thanks for sharing. I’m a huge fan of asking the awkwardly raw and difficult questions that they are most likely facing, have faced, or have an opinion on. Also a huge sucker for getting to hear what tools and processes people use internally and how effective they’ve been.

    Nothing brings you closer than sharing war stories.

    • Liz Allen Pearce

      Thanks, Kyle – agree with you on the war stories front. I think storytelling is a great way to share (and receive) lessons learned. Help and be helped.

  • Paul_Owen

    Nice article but why would you want to go to a networking event in the first place? How do you measure the success of your participation in a networking event? An expanded network? With whom? What outcomes? It seems like the only sure bet is to attend events where the presentation is so compelling it’s worth your time even if you only meet insurance and Amway salesmen.

    • Liz Allen Pearce

      Thought about those things, too – but too much for one post. Part II perhaps?

  • Jason Radach

    Great advice Liz!

  • Roy Leban

    Very nice post. I particularly like #1, #2, #4. #1 is both the scariest and the most important. If you don’t step away from the people you already know, you can’t make any of the rest happen.

    I’ll add:

    7. Listen. Kyle’s advice to ask tough questions proves you’re listening and is hopefully valuable to them and you. I like to ask “how do you make money?”. Doesn’t hurt if you remember what they said the next time you meet them.

    8. Skip. There will be people with whom you actually have nothing in common. That’s ok and it’s ok to move on. (I actually think step 3 of #6 is wrong. It should be “If you need follow-up …” Frequently you don’t)

    9. Help. Make introductions. Not only is it useful, the people you introduced will remember you as the person who was helpful.

    • Liz Allen Pearce

      Thanks for sharing! Great points.

  • Thiago

    What was that bit about root canals? Can I get one of those. Seriously though, great tips. I have a hard time focusing, but not interacting. These tips will probably improve my participation. Thiago |

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