You’ve been invited to a gala event that promises to have professionals and the crème de la crème of the society in attendance. You are not a “social butterfly” and you cringe at the thought of mingling and meeting new people. You think navigating a crowd is the most nerve-racking thing. You wonder if people will want to meet you. Will they care what you have to say? Will you have enough interesting things to hold their attention? What if they bring up a topic you are not conversant with?
All these are very legitimate concerns; but, you are not alone. The fear of navigating a room full of strangers topped the list on a survey done by New York Times on people’s greatest fears. So, take a deep breath and know that you are not alone. Although a lot of our conversations today happen via social media, the place of face-to-face conversations cannot be ignored. Statistics reveal that majority still prioritize in-person meetings. This means it may be time to step out of your comfort zone.
Networking events presents a unique opportunity for us to build meaningful relationships with people we may not encounter in our regular circles. The first thing to keep in mind when attending such events is: why am I going?
Clearly articulating the outcomes you are hoping for and what success will look like is a motivating factor. Last month, I was invited by She Leads Africa to speak at their Lafiya Lifestyle Expo on “The Art of Mingling: Networking your Way to Success”. As someone who works in the field of diplomacy, networking is a big part of my work. In any given month, I attend at least two networking events with a guest list of anywhere from 100-200 people. I have had to develop strategies to help me better navigate both large and small gatherings, and form meaningful connections. I recap below six tips that I shared with the ladies at the Lafiya Lifestyle Expo.
While networking sessions may not be a popularity contest, you want to make sure that you stand out from the crowd. The popular catch phrase ‘dress to impress’ comes to mind. Ahead of the event, find out the dress code for the occasion and be sure you are dressed appropriately. When unsure, I’ll recommend you dress professional. Assert your confidence with a firm hand shake and your best smile. Come up with a quick and catchy introduction and remember to maintain eye contact. When handed a business card, take a moment to read the card an ask questions about the person and the work they do. Take interest in the individual and the conversation. People will remember conversations that add value to them or their work.
Take the bold first step
It is quite tempting to slide to the side of the room, clutching onto your drink like it’s your lifeline and hoping your outfit will transform into an invisible cloak. Don’t do that.
One of the tricks I’ve used to overcome this fear of launching into a conversation is approaching the person in the room who looks like they are having a hard time meeting other people. How will you know them some may ask. Well, for one, they will most likely be standing at the extreme end of another corner of the room, drink-in-hand staring into thin air. I agree that it’s easier when there are familiar faces in the room, and bursting into a boisterous conversation with a group of 4-5 people might seem daunting. But launching a conversation with another quiet person, I call them the “under-dogs”, in the room is an effective way to work your way into the crowd. Some of the most meaningful connections I have made have been with the seemingly quiet persons in the room. They may not have a crowd of people fluttering around them but you will have an opportunity to delve deeper and forge a deeper connection with them.
So someone has finally approached you for a conversation, or you have made the bold step yourself to spark a conversation with someone, it is important to concentrate on the conversation you are having with the individual/s. Be open minded and willing to learn from the people you meet. Ask questions about things you don’t understand. It gives your acquaintance the feeling that you are keen on the conversation. Avoid distractions, and please resist the urge to pick up your phone. Nothing says “I’ll rather be doing something else” than playing around with your phone while someone is trying to hold a conversation with you. Except you are trying to solve world peace, or dealing with an emergency, your phone belongs in your bag or face down on the table. If you must, politely excuse yourself to take the call. Your acquaintance will appreciate that.
Prior to going into a networking event, it’s useful to have some basic information about the gathering. What is it about? Who will be in the room? Arming yourself with this information ahead of time will help you better prepare small talks to keep the conversation going. If it’s a tech gathering, read up on the latest news on leading innovations in the tech industry. It may not be your field of expertise, but having general information on trends in the industry and current happenings will help you flow with conversations. Be open to also sharing your unique experiences and aspects of your work that you consider fascinating.
Know that people want to meet you and know you for who you are. Your work, and life experiences are unique to you and your story is valid. There is always the temptation to try to impress your acquaintance by over selling yourself or tailoring your message to what you think they want to hear. But the most organic and natural-flowing conversations are ones in which everyone brings their authentic self. Honesty is an important foundation for a lasting relationship.
Follow-up with individuals you will like to stay in touch with within a few days of the meeting. In the email, be sure to include some highlights of your conversation to refresh their memory. Briefly introduce any area you will like to continue conversations on and request for a follow up meeting to discuss further.
Don’t forget to send an email to the event organizers. Thank them for the invitation and for providing the platform for you to engage with new contacts. Also do let them know you will be interested in attending future events.
What techniques have worked for you in the past? What steps have you taken to overcome your nervousness and take the bold step to meet new people?
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