As I wandered around in a mass of well dressed, confident women recently, I was struck by how most conversations were not getting anyone anywhere. This was a brave version of me who didn't balk at the prospect of networking in a crowd of people. As I moved around, a business card would be thrust at me even before I had a chance to share my full name and what I did or why I was there. My card was requested immediately and phone numbers exchanged.
All of this happened a few times at breathless pace. I was't even sure at the time if I wanted to have a larger conversation with the person in front of me. I felt a bit overwhelmed and exhausted after a few short and shallow conversations happening at break-neck speed. And this wasn't even a speed networking event that made no bones about the speed part. Yet, most weren't relaxed and some seemed anxious that they had to network somehow. Not my scene, I concluded.
Another experience from long ago comes to mind, this time sans business cards and a fairly timid and hesitant version of me. I would stand in one place and wonder how to approach people much more experienced than me and with whom I would have loved to have a connection. In this instance, it was a small room with a few people whom I knew from work. We had a special guest whom I really wanted to have a chat with. As I approached the person and said hello, a male colleague of mine also walked over, butted in, and quite deliberately nudged me out of my one opportunity to get to know our guest better. As I stood there suddenly without a conversation or a way to get back in, I felt mortified and hurried to blend in with the others, hoping no one had noticed this embarrassing incident.
Over the years, I've tried networking through various ways, even attended a professional session by a noted international training provider on how to network better. They made a lot of sense and I agreed it was a good approach, but could never ever remember those steps when in a real conversation and needed them badly. With my inherent discomfort of throwing myself into networking without a purpose, I ended up with a shrinking network and a sense of isolation that a person with my many interests never needed to feel.
Fast forward to recent times, I've discovered, I am still a reticent mass networker and a hopeless speed networker. What I am excellent at is being a one-on-one networker.I've found my niche and I am loving every bit of it. The freedom that has come from letting go of a certain way to network in a crowd, because that's what's popular, has been absolutely liberating.
Networking then is an act of inclusion, and we don't include many people all at once. Inclusion takes a more considered approach of a few at a time.
Here are tips and strategies to conquer networking one-on-one, I really hope some of you find this relatable and useful. Do write back and let me know your experiences with networking if you find the time.
#1 Don't be in a hurry, relax and sit back
There really is no hurry, even if we were in one, it's nearly impossible to talk to every single person in a crowd. So let go. Unlike usual networking behaviours, sit back and enjoy the opportunity and your surroundings. As you take your time, look around, get a grip, take a breath and grab a glass of water, wine or tea. Something to sip on does it for me, I feel more at home and myself when I am drinking the beverage of my choice. That's just me. As you relax and feel more yourself, you might notice someone who is already known to you. Go say hello as this one act of knowing someone from before brings perspective to our conversations that follow. I make a point to say hello to the person I had virtually connected with and who may have extended me the invitation to attend the event. That's my first key connection. Invariable, that person leads me to my next conversation and how it might be great for me to connect with that person because we have similar interests. There, easy and manageable, I am already on to my second one-on-one chat and no stress so far.
#2 Tune into your surroundings
I do much better with my conversations when I am tuned in to myself and my surroundings. I generally recommend walking some distance to the venue instead of driving and avoid colliding right in with people you don't know and not sure you want to, perhaps. When I am walking, I am tuned in to my breathing, my own thought-process and my priorities around why I am even there. Another highly recommended early action is to visit the restroom, not just to relive ourselves of bodily discomforts, but to look into the mirror. I look at myself, make sure I am presentable still and centre myself. This is a surprisingly handy tip when we are about to enter a large crowd of people and spend the next couple of hours constantly chatting and introducing ourselves. The moment we lose touch with ourselves, we also tend to lose our quality to attract the right people. Start right, and have a greater chance of ending well.
#3 Respond to the energy of the room
Watch who's there and who's chatting with whom, what's the energy level of the room. Is it an excitable bunch of people or a more mellow and soft spoken one. It helps to not break into conversations at an awkward moment or in a way that makes us stand out and turn uncomfortable. I don't mind standing out or having the spotlight on me, but I got to be talking sense when that happens. I watch if people are sidling along the walls and standing by themselves and where the focus of the energy is. I don't mind walking up to someone standing alone and saying hello, often it results in a one-on-one opportunity in an otherwise group oriented event. Always more comfortable than walking into a group of three strangers who are already on to a conversation we don't know about.
#4 Stay purposeful
To attract the right kind of people into our network, stay purposeful. Which is to say, don't stray too far from why you are attending that event. Value your time. Networking one-on-one helps to stay on track and not have too many unfocused and fruitless chats just because it's awkward to step away from people. This doesn't mean we chat with people in our line of work only. What it means is, we get to know people who share similar values and outcomes as we do. In short, who share some of our purpose. I am always on the lookout for people who value diverse points of view, who have the flexibility to see another's idea and genuinely listen, and who are respectful and fun to speak with. I value people with energy and drive as much as with a laid back approach. It isn't about finding mirror images of ourselves, but a variety of people who do what they do differently with a few things that connect us. If a network is to last, it must be built with purpose.
#5 Forget about the quantity, focus on quality
Sounds cliched, and works like a charm. I have about a 1000 connections on LinkedIn, I could have had thousands more by now, but I see no point in gathering them for no reason at all except for the numbers. I enjoy the professional exchange with those who are there and it's driven by our mutual purpose. In one instance of a face-to-face networking opportunity, I din't get a feeling that there was willingness in the room to meet with each other. Those who knew each other stuck together, the rest wandered about a bit aimlessly. I was one of them. I didn't know a soul, but had trekked all the way to the event to hear one guest speak who I was interested in getting to know more about. I focused on why I was there and let go of the pressure of introducing myself to five people just because now I was there and it would be a waste not to. Not really a waste, I spent time with myself, enjoyed my beautiful surroundings and the opportunity to get away from my everyday routine to do something different. I got back fully charged up and with no regrets of not getting to know a lot of people.
Why do we network at all? In some way, another person's ideas, energy and perspectives can enable our life and work, we do the same for them. That is why there is any point in getting to know someone. So, cultivating a network is a mindful and purposeful activity, not a high speed social one. Once you discover the kind of networker you are, you will see your network grow in meaningful ways.
What kind of networker are you?