The word “networking” has a lot of meaning packed into it—it's professional, social, casual, formal, nerve-wracking and fun all at once. (Some of you might not agree about the fun part … yet. But you will.) When it really comes down to it, networking is all about forming relationships with people. Often we spend so much time thinking about how networking is going to help our business that we forget how to interact with our fellow human beings. Whether you're an introvert, extrovert, smooth-talker, nervous-laugher, born salesperson or number-cruncher doesn't matter. What does matter is that you take networking for what it is—interaction with other people. So here's how can you make networking fun while still helping your business.
1. Set the right goals. Being responsible for something you can't control is the major component of stress. You can't control who shows up at an event, what their goals are and how their business is doing. If you go into an event telling yourself that your job for the night is to sign five new clients, what you're doing is giving other people control over your success. That can drive you bonkers. And bonkers isn't the best state of mind to be in when meeting new people.
Make your objectives things that you control. You can have more than one mission for the night, such as “I will tell at least four people about the exciting new project I'm working on” or “I will find out from at least six people what their businesses' biggest challenge is for this year.” If the idea of networking makes you want to hide, your mission could be as simple as “I will talk to at least five people I don't already know” or “I will approach at least two groups of people and join in their conversation.” Those are all achievable goals that can help your business but don't leave your happiness dependent on someone else's behavior.
2. Ditch the pitch. You should have an idea of how to concisely explain your business/what you do (20 seconds should do it. Think of it as the intro Letterman would give of you before you sat on the couch for an interview). But if you have a sales pitch, don't be surprised if you spend the event in the corner alone with a glass of Merlot. We're professionals, and no one has to pretend we're not there for business. But if you can't take a genuine interest in the people you're talking to, then talk to someone else. They'll pick up on your interest and be more engaged in the conversation, and you'll have more fun than if you spent the time giving a verbal PowerPoint to someone you weren't interested in.
I like to think of networking as making business friends. Networking is not about convincing strangers to hire you, buy from you, recommend you or follow you on Twitter. It's about getting to know them and letting them get to know you. We'd all rather do business with people we know and trust.
3. Follow up. If you know that you are going to have another chance to talk to these people, you'll feel less pressure while you're there. So make the effort to contact people you liked or whom you thought could be potential clients, contractors, employees and so on. It could be something as low-risk as sending them a friend request on Facebook or following them on Twitter. Or if you really felt a connection and sensed possibilities, meet for coffee. Better yet, help them out. Met an awesome web developer at an event? Why not tell him to bid on your next-door neighbor's project. If you see them at future events, it will be like meeting up with old friends.