You’re attending a professional conference and don’t know anyone else attending. There is a networking reception on the opening night, and you dread going. How will you chat with others you don’t know? What will you chat about, or will you end up standing on the wall feeling like an outcast?
Did you know that most people feel exactly the same way? Going to a networking event when you don’t know anyone stirs up feelings of anxiety and discomfort. According to the New York Times, 40-75% of people suffer from social anxiety, making it the number one social fear.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I attend a lot of events where I know no one, but I use these tips to keep me from feeling anxious or staying in my room and missing out on potential fun.
- Act as host or hostess: One way to combat social anxiety is by taking on the role of a host or hostess. By taking on this role, you give yourself a purpose and something to focus on. Offer assistance to others, welcome new arrivals, and introduce people to each other. Not only will this keep you engaged and occupied, but it will also make you more approachable and confident.
I will find someone who has just walked in and walk over to them and explain how it works. The bar is a cash bar over here, and once you have your ticket, go here. I pretend it is my party and greet new people. I often introduce them to others once I’ve chatted with them for a while. It gives me a role to play (there is rarely a host at a networking event who does this), and it helps relieve the anxiety of others.
- Maintain eye contact and smile: Maintaining eye contact is crucial when introducing yourself to someone. It shows that you are attentive, interested, and confident. Remember to smile: It may seem like an obvious tip, but it is surprising how many people forget to smile because they are nervous. A warm and genuine smile can instantly make you more approachable and likable. Remember, a smile is a universal language that transcends barriers and can help to establish a positive connection with others.
I make eye contact and smile as people walk by me at an event. They often feel comfortable enough to say hello, and a conversation starts. Lack of eye contact and no smile makes people keep walking as you don’t look approachable.
- Introduce yourself and ask a question: Once you have made initial contact, introduce yourself confidently but quickly. Give the 1-minute “elevator pitch” but quickly transition to asking open-ended questions about the other person related to the event or the person’s interests. This allows the conversation to flow naturally and demonstrates your genuine interest in the other person. Networking is about building relationships based on mutual interests, needs, and goals.
I typically ask where people are from. It is a safe and easy conversation. If it is a work event, I ask where they work and how long they’ve been there. I’ll ask about the trip, weather, and sports teams if they traveled to the event. That’s a lot of conversation if we talk about all of that (which we don’t normally do). It isn’t an interview, so they shouldn’t feel like they are being interrogated, but a friendly chat on safe topics.
- Talk about them, not you: Networking is about building relationships and rapport. Avoid monopolizing the conversation by focusing solely on yourself. Instead, show curiosity about the other person’s experiences, workplace, or home location. Actively listen and ask follow-up questions to show your engagement and interest.
If you meet someone at an event and know nothing about them after you met them and chatted for a few minutes, you weren’t networking. You were monopolizing the conversation about you. They know about you, but you don’t know about them. Don’t do that.
- Approach groups of three or more: While it may be tempting to join a smaller group, it is often more beneficial to approach groups of three or more. In smaller groups, people may already be engaged in private discussions, making it awkward for you to join in. Larger groups provide more opportunities for introductions and interactions.
Networking may seem daunting for those who suffer from social anxiety. But with the right mindset and a few effective strategies, you can overcome your shyness and network like a pro. So, the next time you attend a conference or trade show, don’t talk yourself out of going and spending the evening in your hotel room, instead, remember these tips and embrace the power of networking.