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.
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 @lizprc. Previously on GeekWire from Liz Pearce: Work-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.