Most Millennials are nervous about networking, and it makes sense. It’s similar to attending a party full of strangers and the only person you know doesn’t show up. But instead of strangers, it’s a room full of men that are usually “in finance,” and you’re one wrong nod away from receiving weekly calls about life insurance until you die.
But I’ll say this: of all the opportunities I’ve received in my career, the most beneficial have resulted from networking. It’s just the truth. More than my degree, more than the books I’ve read or podcasts I’ve listened to: the number one reason I’m on my way to somewhere that feels right for me is because I got over my fear (mostly) of talking to a room full of strangers.
When I was in college, I was able to secure a job as a project manager for a creative agency because I had coffee with the founder (I was in no way qualified).
He spoke to my class and I liked what he had to say, so I mustered up the gall to ask him to meet. It turned into an incredible opportunity that eventually led to my current job. And since graduating, I haven’t filled out a single job application. Every opportunity has emerged through the relationships I’ve built.
Anyone that’s focused on getting themselves out there is doing something incredible for their career. Opportunities won’t fall into your lap if your safe in your bubble of people you see on a weekly basis–change requires changes.
And like many changes, it can be uncomfortable, awkward, and downright weird. So, instead of promising that you’ll eventually love networking, I wanted to share 9 tips that will make it more bearable (read: suck less).
1. GO WITH A BUDDY
While I think everyone should experience going to a networking event alone, you can ease your anxiety by attending your first event with a friend or colleague. Not only will this help you at the event, but it will also hold you accountable to actually attend (like a gym buddy).
This said, be sure to set the expectation with your buddy that you’re there to meet new people (and not just sit together in the corner).
Since the early benefits of networking are frequently intangible, you can use your buddy to set goals for the evening, like talking to 10 new people or handing out 20 business cards. This will help you quantify the gains you’ve made, and can create some healthy competition that fosters confidence.
2. REMEMBER THAT NETWORKING ISN’T GOING TO HELP YOU NOW.
Well, it could. But the real play is for the long term. Many of the opportunities I mentioned previously came YEARS after initially meeting the contact at an event. We’d see each other out, talk more, become friends and grab coffee (I like coffee) every now and then. Then, all of a sudden, something comes up for them and they think of little old me, and an opportunity drops in my lap that I didn’t see coming.
It’s like investing time or money into most things that are worthwhile–you’re not likely to see an immediate return.
Side note: whenever I hear “growing” or “nurturing” relationships, it can feel disingenuous. So, I’ll say this: don’t communicate with people you don’t get along with, because the whole networking process is uncomfortable as it is. You aren’t going to go out of your way to maintain communication with someone you don’t like anyway. So pick people you like.
This said, several people I’ve met through networking have become some of my closest friends.
3. PRACTICE YOUR PERSONAL ELEVATOR PITCH
The two questions you’ll receive over and over are “What do you do?” and “What brings you here?” You can lose steam quickly if you fumble through these questions.
This next bit is going to sound a little silly, but stay with me: write down your pitch, and practice it in the mirror. Also, keep it intentionally vague to create more questions. If anyone in your audience is interested in your “short pitch”, chances are they’ll be more captive for the long one.
This also keeps the conversation dynamic at a good balance, because you don’t want to talk TOO much about yourself.
Side note: a huge tip for these events (and people in general): if you didn’t know, everyone wants to talk about themselves. We’ll talk more about this in the next section.
So again, before you attend your first event, write down your “pitch” (no more than 1-2 sentences) and practice in the mirror or in the car. Think about what questions people might ask, and practice answering them. I know this seems hokey, but mastering the basic interactions helped me be so much more confident when walking in the front door.
You don’t have to be clunky and stick only to your mental flash cards, but it’s comforting to have a few prepared spiels as anchor points.
4. TALK LESS, LISTEN MORE.
When I first started networking, I’d tell people my life story. When someone would ask me what I did, I’d launch into a full diatribe of all my existing accomplishments: “My names Emily and I’m a full time student at SLU and i’m getting an entrepreneurship degree and I have a 4.0 and I’m a pm for a creative firm and I work for Apple retail and I eat way too much Subway Pizza yes they have pizza etc.”
It went on for a straight 5 minutes… and no one gave a shit. Not one. I counted.
So, pay close attention to tip #3 and practice your concise pitch.
I’ve met some really incredible people, but I always remember the ones who only talked about themselves. You’ll meet them. Actually, you’ll meet them several times. And when you see each other again, they’ll tell you everything that they are doing with blatant disregard for what you’re up to. You could be standing there on fire, it won’t matter.
^Don’t be these people. I remember these people, but for the wrong reasons. Remember your parents saying “You have two ears, and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you talk.” Take that to heart. Make your parents proud.
But really. Think about when you were a kid, and there was that one adult that spent the time getting on your level, actually hearing you and taking you seriously. You want people to feel heard at networking events because no one else is listening. Have genuine curiosity at what they do. Find common ground. Have them walk away feeling like they connected with you over something, even if it’s completely unrelated to your work.
When starting a new conversation, ask the first question. Listen intently, express genuine interest, and jump in when you find common ground. If they are one of “those people,” just know that if they are going to remember anything, it’s going to be that they had a great interaction with you because you let them tell their story and were genuinely interested.
5. DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH
This should be a no-brainer…but it’s not.
There’s always beer at these things to loosen people up. That said, it’s the absolute worst getting stuck in a lengthy conversation with someone that’s just too drunk to realize it. You don’t want people to remember you because you were super lit. Have one drink, but not 5 (unless your tolerance is way more impressive than mine). Don’t shotgun that beer. Be mindful that you’re completely lucid, and pay attention to the conversations.
6. DON’T GET STUCK IN A CONVERSATION*
Think of networking like speed dating: This is an opportunity to meet lots of people in a short period of time that hopefully results in future conversations. You might find someone early in the night that you want to speak with further.
It may feel counterintuitive or even rude, but don’t spend the whole evening talking to them. Not only are you limiting the number of people you’ll connect with, but you’re also trying to make a connection with them in a very distracting environment. Yelling your extended pitch over a crowded room won’t land the way you want it to.
If you’re having a great conversation, find a natural way to tie it up and ask them to grab coffee. After a couple mins, or 10-20 if it’s good, say “Hey, I’d really love to discuss this further over coffee. Do you have a card?”
If you are in the middle of a conversation, say “It seems like we have a lot of common interests, and I want to give this conversation my full attention. Would you want to pick it back up over coffee next week?” You can schedule it right there by checking your calendar and finding a time that works for both of you. You can also send them an email immediately to get the process going, noting a few important things you talked about.
If this person is an executive or likely very busy, it’s best to get it locked down right there. I’ve found that it’s valuable to do this, because you’ll likely go home with a lot of business cards, and may not remember who’s who.
*Obviously, this rule is invalid if you meet a Tim Ferris, Tony Robbins, or someone that may have a life-changing opportunity for you.
7. ADMIT YOU DON’T KNOW
It’s easy to think you should pretend to know all the buzzwords and jargon. Wrong. Pretending to know what’s going on won’t make you look smarter, and won’t help you out in the end. You’ll end up either admitting you don’t know at an inopportune time, or miss out on valuable knowledge that would have helped you grow. Admitting that you don’t know enables you to ask more questions, be a much more attentive listener, and learn in the process.
So the next time someone is talking your ear off and they’re using words that make them sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher, pause and ask what it means. They’ll be more than happy to tell you. It makes them feel smart. And people like feeling smart.
8. CHECK THE RSVP LIST TO PRE-NETWORK
Most networking events have public RSVP lists where you can see who will be attending. Not only is this valuable to see whether you’re interested in the event, but it also gives you an opportunity to pre-network. Make connections before you get there. If you’re worried about not having anyone to talk to or are going alone, look for guests that you’ll want to talk to or that you have things in common. Add them on LinkedIn, and send a message letting them know you’d like to connect.
They’ll likely respond. Even if they don’t, then you can approach and say, “Hi, I added you on LinkedIn yesterday. Curious to hear more about your adventures in squirrel wrangling.”
You can also try to set up a mini meeting — ask if they can chat with you for 10 minutes at the beginning of the event. If you chat with them at the very beginning, it can segway into your next conversation.
You can even ask the person, “Do you know any other squirrel wrangling gurus in attendance tonight? I’d love to pick their brain if you could introduce me.”
9. LATHER, RINSE, REPEAT.
Especially if you’re nervous. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be. I’d start out consistently going to smaller meetups (like a young professionals event) and start to build ties. In a couple sessions, you’ll probably have talked to everyone there and see familiar faces.