How to Network at Events and Information Sessions When You’re Not Feeling Sociable
A loss for words.
You just went to an exciting event at a great venue – The Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center – and you were certain you’d do incredibly well networking there.
You even wore your best set of clothes.
But as soon as you arrived, you felt uncomfortable and you had no idea what to say to anyone there.
To complicate things, you also didn’t know anyone else there.
And now you just bumped into an MD at Goldman Sachs and stumbled for words, embarrassing yourself in the process.
This happens all the time when you’re attending events, but if you want to network successfully you have to find a way to overcome these feelings.
After all, you stand a much better chance of meeting people, developing relationships, and winning interviews and job offers by attending events than you do by sitting behind the computer screen “leveling up” on LinkedIn all day.
So here’s the step-by-step process to follow when you’re not in a sociable mood, but you need to attend an in-person event and network anyway:
Step 1: Find Interesting and Useful Events in Your City
The first step is to find an event that you’re actually interested in.
This sounds simple, but too many people waste time attending events that have little to no appeal to them – and you’ll almost always be uncomfortable at those.
You can find events on dozens of websites, including: Purpella, Eventbrite, MeetUp, Sosh, and Stash.
These groups are not directly affiliated with banks, but they frequently partner with major companies’ employee resource groups (ERGs) or business resource groups (BRGs) – both are important hubs for getting to know a lot of people in a short amount of time.
If you’re feeling adventurous, NY Art Beat and ArtCards both offer a calendar of gallery openings (in case you’re in the mood for hedge fund billionaires).
One way to make yourself comfortable at these events is to volunteer for a leadership role – if you do that, more people will come to you, and you can even create your own role as long as you follow-through on what you say you’re going to do.
Doing this also creates a conversation topic for the event itself, because you can explain to everyone who you are and how you’re involved.
You can also volunteer to be a member of the registration desk, or a greeter – you’ll have to greet almost everyone who walks in, which gets you “warmed up” for conversations later on and makes it easier to approach others.
Another advantage is that you’ll get key information on the attendees – and you can then use that information to decide whom you approach, or even to look up the person online, let some time lapse, and then go talk to him/her.
Step 2: Get Ready for the Event: What to Wear and What to Carry
I once attended a networking event where a girl said to me, “I always make sure to talk to the best-dressed guy.”
Another person once said, “If I don’t feel well, I’ll make sure to dress better.”
“Better” really means whatever you feel comfortable in (read: fits well), as long as it’s appropriate for the occasion.
Put simply, if you’re not feeling sociable or you’re not in a great mood, dressing well is a great way to gain confidence and put yourself at ease.
You can always say, “I came from a meeting just now” to explain why you’re dressed up for the occasion. My father once said, “The occasion is only as important as how you dress for it.”
I’m sure you’re more than up for the challenge.
Some people also carry mints or spearmint gum to networking events. If it works for you, great; it’s definitely something to try out.
Business cards can be helpful to bring, but they’re not essential (and for students, they might come across as a bit “too much”).
It’s more important to exchange email addresses so you can follow-up later; you should focus on building strong rapport at the event, not getting every single contact method for the other person.
Step 3: Walk Into the Event and Approach People
So you’ve found an event you’re interested in, you’re wearing your best clothes, and you even brought a full stack of business cards to be an overachiever.
One trick you can use to feel more comfortable is to arrive early – it will feel more like a small dinner party rather than a huge meet-and-greet if you show up before the event starts.
Another trick is to bring a “wingman” / “wingwoman” so you can approach people together, or “divide and conquer.”
Just keep in mind that his can also be habit-forming; the more often you go to events on your own, the more likely you’ll be able to keep up the momentum.
Once you’re inside the event, the worst thing you can do is start asking questions that make you look desperate.
Here are some actual examples I’ve heard at events in Manhattan:
- “Who here is single?”
- “Who here works in the real estate investment banking department at Deutsche Bank, I mean the New York office – and in the front office, not the back office?”
A more sensible strategy might look like:
- Approach any guest and ask what brought him/her out to the event in the first place, and who else he/she knows at the event.
- Approach anyone not in a big group, such as individuals or pairs of attendees, and especially anyone who’s looking at his/her phone.
- Look for conversations where people are less involved – for example, they’re not making much eye contact, they’re standing at an angle from each other, or their conversation has quite a few moments of silence.
- Look for people coming back from the food or drinks section, people who are just entering the event, or people who just left a group.
If the event has speakers, it’s much better to approach them before they speak, not after – everyone else in the room will want to connect with someone who suddenly seems important. Just make sure you’re respectful of their time if they have to set up a presentation beforehand.
It’s also a good idea to talk to both men and women to keep a balanced perspective.
If you’ve ever seen someone talk to only men or only women at an event, you’ve probably noticed how the person seems like a “hummingbird” looking for something, as opposed to a genuine professional looking to add value.
Step 4: Break the Ice
One source of stress when networking is having to think of new things to say to each person – you can avoid that by having a few “openings” memorized and always using them.
- “How did you hear about this event?”
- “How do you know each other?”
- “So what brings you here?”
You always want to open with questions that do not involve a yes/no answer.
If you get a short answer in response, it doesn’t necessarily mean the conversation isn’t welcomed – it might just mean the person isn’t in the mood to talk at that moment. But you can change that with what you say and how you respond.
You can also try making friendly jokes at the other person’s expense.
One time, a friend was in line for an event and saw someone drinking orange juice while waiting in line. He said something like, “You brought your own drink to the party?” to introduce himself to the other person.
Make sure to end your comment with the right smile so you come across as friendly and not adversarial.
Step 5: Use the Proper Conversational Tactics
Reduce the pressure on yourself by setting a time limit for each conversation.
A “networking” conversation is like your favorite dish: the first serving is awesome, but the subsequent servings aren’t so great.
It’s much better to leave room for more discussion than it is to exhaust your palette of conversation topics. That way, you can close the conversation by saying something like: “We should definitely grab coffee sometime, it’d be great to learn more about ____(topic).”
So before you even start talking, set a time limit for yourself (perhaps 5-10 minutes) and at the end, say something like the sentence above and move on.
Of course, if you do get into a great, in-depth conversation with someone, feel free to stay there and talk – it’s always better to develop a few meaningful contacts rather than dozens of superficial ones.
In terms of body language, make sure you blink when you are having a conversation with someone. Stay focused on the conversation (i.e., avoid looking around the room at other people), but not so focused that you’re “staring.”
Your initial topics with someone new should focus on his/her background and motivations.
Open-ended questions are key: “What brings you to this event?”, “Why do you like this industry so much?”, or “How did you first get interested in this career?” all work well.
Questions such as “What do you like to do?” are more interesting than “What do you do?” (that might be the most generic way to start a conversation – and you’re going for memorable, not generic).
For investment banking receptions, it’s useful to ask questions about the sector, such as “What do you see as the challenges for the ____ (sector) in the next year?” or “Did you always know you wanted to cover ____ (sector)?”
Topics to cycle through might include:
- Where he/she is from originally;
- What brought him/her to this city, and when;
- Where the person has traveled to / lived in before this;
- Where the person’s friends/family are from or where they live now;
- What he/she does for fun;
- Asking what he/she has planned for the weekend or the next few months;
- Recent news that relates to the person’s company / job;
The goal is to find at least 1 common interest that you can use to follow-up – and if there’s really nothing, just look back at the fact that you two were at the event and use that as a springboard for rapport.
The key to making a good connection is conveying your value to the other person.
Step 6: Deal with Difficult People or Toxic Personalities
Every now and then, you’ll run into people who like to make trouble or make others look bad. When this happens, you need to take the high road, keep your composure, and get out of the conversation as soon as possible.
You can also develop useful and intelligent responses through Duke University, which offers a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on this topic called Think Again: How to Reason and Argue; also try The Little Blue Book of Reasoning.
As you’re walking around, keep your ears open for people who sound annoying/difficult (they tend to be loud), and do everything you can to avoid them – going to the bathroom or taking a quick phone call are effective “escape routes.”
Step 7: Close the Event
As the event is approaching the end, or as the stream of people coming in has slowed down, it’s a great idea to go thank the organizers / host committee.
It’s a ton of work to coordinate an audience for an evening of drinks, especially the right kind of audience you want to invest your time with.
At this point in the evening, the organizers will be less busy greeting people and helping with the logistics… so they’ll be more available to speak with you.
You can ask them, “Who do you know here?” or, more diplomatically, “Do you know a lot of people here?” You can ask a variant on this question, such as, “Whom did you come here to meet?”
This is a great way to get introductions to anyone you haven’t already spoken with, and it’s much lower pressure than approaching them on your own.
If you find yourself not feeling sociable at an event for an extended period, even after trying everything above, it’s best to pick up your things and head home.
These events are like a table at a casino: sometimes you win, and sometimes you don’t.
If you aren’t winning, pick up your chips and head to another dealer.
Step 8: Follow-Up After the Event
If you’ve gone to the event specifically for job-hunting purposes, you can follow-up with an email asking for an informational interview within a few days.
But you don’t necessarily have to do that – if you’re on a longer-term time frame or you went to the event simply to expand your network, you can write something like:
It was great meeting you at the _______ (topic) workshop. I really enjoyed our conversation about _____ (noun) and learning about your background in _____ (other noun). I look forward to keeping in touch.
You can also add the person on LinkedIn or ask politely for a follow-up conversation.
Jane Hyun offers very insightful cross-cultural communication and effective selling strategies, and one of her points is that the specific language you use makes a huge difference, even if you’re saying the same thing in each case.
Witness the difference between:
- “Stop by my desk at 3pm. Don’t be late.”
- “Stop by my desk at 3pm, we’ll talk about our next project together.”
- “Please stop by my desk at 3pm, so that we can discuss our next project.”
- “If it’s not too much trouble, would you have time to talk at 2pm or 4pm? I would greatly appreciate a chance to discuss your thoughts as we begin our next project.”
So even if you made a great first impression at the event, don’t assume you can just ask for anything in any way you want: watch the specific language you use, and aim for something close to that last example.
You can also include an article of interest with 3 takeaway/summary points so your recipient doesn’t actually have to read the article, and you could stay in touch by sending across useful events that might be of interest (ex: other networking events, panels on other areas within finance, etc.).
Not Feeling Sociable? Consider This Your Challenge!
It happens to all of us.
But just because you don’t “feel” like attending events doesn’t mean you can avoid them forever.
At least if you ever want to find a new job, expand your social circle, or meet key contacts.
Luckily, you can turn a losing event into a winning proposition if you follow the playbook above.
Just consider it your challenge – one you have to accept.
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