Let's say you are attending a conference. At the end of a day, all participants are encouraged to attend a cocktail reception. Although this may be a great networking opportunity, you feel a pit in your stomach growing to the size of a cantaloupe as you walk into the reception hall. You don’t know anyone. What are you going to say? How are you going to carry on meaningful conversations with total strangers?
These are all incredibly common feelings, according to Rachel Wagner, a certified corporate etiquette consultant, trainer and speaker in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“Many people are fearful of making introductions,” she says. “They look around the room and see people effortlessly waltzing in and out of conversations. They worry that they can’t do the same.”
Here are some tips to help you network with ease.
It’s 8 a.m. and you are sitting at your desk, already nervous about your 6 p.m. networking event. First, try to breathe. Second, make sure to get there early.
“If you get there late and there is already a room full of people, it can be highly intimidating,” Wagner says. “Getting their early will ensure that less people will be around, which means you might be able to start conversations a little more easily.”
Once there, assess the situation. Wagner recommends immediately moving to the right of the entrance and taking a sweeping look around the room. Instead of heading directly for the bar or buffet table, single out the people you’d like speak with and develop a strategy.
Next, look for what Dr. Ivan Misner, author of Networking Like a Pro: Turning Contacts into Connections and founder of BNI, a business networking organization, calls “open 2’s and open 3’s.” These are v-shaped standing formations (two people, three people) which easily allow for the addition of another person.
“Standing this way is a subtle form of inclusiveness,” Misner says.
Ok, you’ve identified a target: a group of businesspeople standing in an ‘open 3.’ Now try to make eye contact with someone in the group and once you have, Wagner recommends smiling, walking towards the person, extending your hand and asking, "Mind if I join you?"
“They will always welcome you into the group; that is what networking events are all about,” she says. “I equate this action to a bridge. When you go into groups and introduce yourself, you are stepping across a bridge into a new relationship.”
Once you’ve introduced yourself, most likely the other members of the group will introduce themselves as well. Now it’s time to start what Misner calls, “the interview.”
“Try to find out information about the other person; who, what, when, where, why,” he recommends.
According to Misner, the whole point of a networking event is to build relationships, not to sell.
“If you go there wanting to sell, you will fail,” he says. “You need to start by building visibility, and the way you build visibility is by asking about them.”
Misner recommends asking questions like: What do you do? Who is your target market? What do you like most about what you do? What is new in your business?
“When networking is done wrong, it is like a cold call and will turn people off to you,” he says. “Networking is more about farming than it is about hunting. It is about cultivating relationships with other people.”
Networking events are usually no longer than 90 minutes, which means it is important to keep moving and meeting new people.
“You don’t want to stay with the same group for the entire reception—stay with them for just five to 15 minutes,” Wagner advises.
If you want to get out of your group, be polite about it. “If someone just keeps going on and on about something, wait until they take a breath and say, ‘It’s been a delight speaking with you, but there are several other people here that I’d like to chat with. Would you excuse me please?’”
Another option is having a wingman. If you are lucky enough to come to an event with someone you know, vow beforehand to watch out for each other. “If your wingman sees you trapped in a long-winded conversation, they can come up and rescue you,” Wagner says. “They could say, ‘Excuse me, there is someone I want to introduce you to.’”
No wingman? Just tell them you need to take a phone call or need to refresh your beverage, she says, adding, “If you are in a group of four to six people and the conversation is not focused on you, feel free to silently walk away from the group.”