How to Network Without Feeling Like a Big, Fat Phony

Jul 28, 2015 -
Networking often gets a bad rap. We know it’s an important part of growing our careers, but it makes many of us feel like used car salesmen -- fake, forced, pushy, and only interested in the sale (in this case, advancing our own careers). But it doesn’t have to be this way. A few mental adjustments and some new tactics can turn that dreaded networking event into a comfortable, casual opportunity to meet some new people and make some new connections. By brushing up on your networking skills and learning a few social cues, you’ll be fearless and engaging at your next event. Here are seven tips to reduce that networking “ick” factor. (Click here to tweet these tips.)

1. Read up on your fellow networkers

If you have access to the attendee list for an upcoming event, do a little covert online research to find out more about the people you’ll be networking with. If they’re in a higher echelon than you are, not knowing who they are and what they’re known for will make you look out-of-touch, so you want to be sure to go in armed with some basic information. If they’re on your level, knowing a little about their accomplishments and career path can help you make a great first impression. You don’t want to come across as stalkerish (“I loved those Facebook photos of your kids on the beach!”) or fawning (“Your latest LinkedIn post was brilliant...”), but if another attendee has written a book, delivered a keynote speech or done anything else noteworthy, remarking on it can be a great way to initiate a conversation with them, demonstrate your industry knowledge and earn you some immediate brownie points. (Because, let’s be honest, everyone likes to feel recognized and appreciated.)

2. Count to five

In her TED Talk “How to Stop Screwing Yourself Over,” career expert Mel Robbins introduces what she calls the “Five-Second Rule.” Your mind -- or that part of your mind Robbins calls the “lizard brain” -- will do its darndest to avoid scary or risky situations. To combat this tendency, Robbins recommends that every time you have an idea that requires action (like introducing yourself to someone at a networking event), you should do it within five seconds before your lizard brain talks you out of it. So when you spot that polished exec from your dream company standing over by the finger foods, gather yourself together, count to five and walk straight towards him. Don’t stop to debate whether or not you should introduce yourself. Don’t wait for “the right moment.” Just go for it. Then, when you get to him, say hello and start talking. The more you plan things out in your head, the more stilted and forced you’ll sound.

3. Use awkwardness to your advantage

Engaging in small talk with strangers is awkward. Make the situation less awkward by not only acknowledging the elephant in the room, but turning into a point of commonality. Opening with “I always feel so silly at events like this” or “It’s always odd starting a conversation with a stranger, isn’t it?” can help relieve some of the tension you feel and put the other person more at ease. There’s a very good chance the other person will say, “I never know what to say, either!” -- at which point you’ve started a conversation with a stranger and found something to talk about, just like that.

4. Stop trying to sell yourself

Networking events aren’t interviews or first dates. You don’t need to wow anyone or prove your worth; you just need to exchange information and see if you can make a genuine connection. So stop rehearsing that elevator speech, stop trying to see how many business cards you can exchange and simply focus on simply having a conversation with the person standing across from you. Look for commonalities, whether it’s business-related (you’re both interested in social media) or life-related (you both love watching Game of Thrones). At an event where everyone will talk to dozens of people and everyone is trying to sell themselves, the best way to get your name and face to stand out in someone’s memory is to be genuine and connect with them on a human level.

5. Ask questions

It’s a trick plenty of introverts have learned to help themselves through small-talk situations: If you ask a lot of questions about the other person, they will think you’re the greatest conversationalist in the world. It comes down to two simple facts: people like to talk about themselves, and they like people who show a genuine interest in who they are and what they’re into. While you want to let the other person know why you’re someone worth connecting with, you also want them to feel the connection is based on something more than “what’s in it for me?” Asking questions about things like what the other person does, why they do it and how they got into it will cement your image in their mind as someone who isn’t just there to collect business cards.

6. Know when to make a graceful exit

Lulls are a natural part of conversation, even those conversations with your dearest, closest friends. When a lull happens in a conversation with a stranger, we tend to panic and race to fill the silence with whatever thought blurts out of our mouths first. Don’t. This is when stupid things are said and otherwise great impressions are erased. Instead, when you feel the conversation slowing down, take it as your cue to politely say your goodbyes and move on. It’s a networking event, so no one expects you to talk to them forever; just be sure you spend long enough to make a connection, then tell the person how nice it was to meet them, let them know you’d like to stay in touch, and move on. (If you truly do want to stay in touch, make sure to follow up after the event to stay fresh in their mind.) If you find yourself talking to someone with whom you have zero connection, you can use a similar tactic to disengage. Thank them for their time, exchange “pleased to meet you”s, then take your leave with an inoffensive line like, “Well, I guess I’d better mingle a little more.”

7. Think outside the box

It’s also important to remember that networking doesn’t only take place at traditional networking events. When you work it into your daily life, you’ll find that not only can you form valuable connections in any setting, but that networking will start to feel more natural to you when you’re not in a forced, pressure-cooker situation. You can network at coffee shops, family functions, community events, you name it. If you feel more comfortable when the face-to-face element is removed, try online networking events and connecting with people on industry forums and boards to get your feet wet. How do you navigate the awkwardness of networking? Share your tips in the comments! Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.