Networking seems to be one of those things, like presenting, that makes people uncomfortable at best and terrifies them at worst.
Occasionally we run into someone who loves the socialising side and seems comfortable chatting with anyone in any circumstance. But not that many.
Like presenting, networking is very exposing; or at least it feels that way. The most common phrase we hear is, "I'm not good with chit chat and small talk." And if you do feel awkward then the very nature of networking events will create that feeling of dread.
It doesn't have to be that way!
Again, like presentation, when someone has to go to networking events who doesn't want to, their attention tends to be on themselves: "I'm nervous" "I'm shy" "People are ignoring me" etc. And that's perfectly natural. When we're frightened we do tend to become somewhat blinkered and self-focused.
One of the key ways to help overcome both the nerves and the self-attention is to place your awareness on other people: do they look comfortable? Do they look on their own? Shall I see if someone would like a drink or a nibble?
Instead of huddling in a corner by yourself or hiding out in a group you already know, you can become a networking star by looking after other people; taking people under your wing, helping them meet others. It's far less exposing than going up to a group of people you don't know and introducing yourself.
What it also does is give you practise joining new groups so that later on if you do find yourself on your own by then your confidence will have increased and you will most likely be able to join a group of strangers.
For those of you who still feel self-conscious making small-talk, don't bother. Don't even try. All you need to do is remember the most important 'rule' about networking: get the other person to talk about themselves. Just about everyone likes to have a good natter about themselves given the opportunity. You don't need to feel inept; get a few good leading questions at the ready - people don't need a lot of encouragement.
You can even throw in a bit of personal disclosure which also is a good catalyst for getting people to open up. Things like, "I wonder if you had the same luck I had this weekend, I was actually able to take a whole day off and do nothing." Or "I was really pleased to come along tonight, otherwise I'd still be chained to my desk. What about you?"
It really doesn't matter what you ask or even what personal information you disclose (well, not too personal!); all you're looking for is a way in to open up the conversation so that other people feel listened to and you're away.
Once you've had a go a few times, we can pretty much guarantee that networking events will be something you look forward to instead of something to fear.
By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory