How to spread your influence and expand your contacts...with less heartburn
The last thing Larry Stevens wants to do is get out and schmooze. With this hesitant speech and low-key demeanor, this immigration attorney in Guilderland, New York, is among the many millions of shy individuals for whom networking is a loathed chore.
But it’s got to be done. "I've had this law office full-time for five years and for it to begin to snowball, it has to be through word of mouth," Stevens says. And if word of mouth is how you get your customers, networking is very important. "You just suck it up and do it."
So how do you get out there and mingle if you aren't the social type?
1. Ease the Pressure on Yourself
Stevens used to show up at mix-n-mingles hoping to land new clients. That pressure only made him more tongue-tied. "I've learned that there are people you met two years ago at a networking function who later call you, or you get a referral from them," he says. "Once you get over thinking that it is going to happen right away, then it gets easier to do."
2. Find a Friend in the Crowd
It’s a lot easier to get out there and rub elbows if you know you've got a sympathetic pal. Finding the right conversations means doing your homework in advance. If you know who is going to be there (and the organizers will often make a list available), start Googling. Read their LinkedIn profiles. Find those who have shared interests or experiences and then start scanning nametags. If you've got something in common—maybe a school, or a past employer, or even a shared activity outside of work—that can create the icebreaker that makes conversation more natural, says Mark Grimm, business consultant and communications coach, Schenectady, New York.
3. Reach Out in Advance
Motivational speaker Faith McKinney, owner of Successful Thinkers in Indiana, suggests making pre-event contact with those whom you would like to meet. Services like Sendoutcards.com make it easy to drop a quick note, customized with a photo for easy recognition when the big event rolls around. Making early contact not only alerts potential new friends to your presence, but also breaks the ice for those too self-conscious to simply approach a stranger with a firm handshake and a smile.
4. Listen to Others
There’s really no pressure to do a song and dance. Sometimes the best strategy for the shy or awkward is to sit back and take it all in. "Learn to ask questions and listen to the answers. Ask the names of people you meet, what they do, why they do it, and who they would like to meet. Then ask for their business card and be sure to jot those answers on the back."
Remember: Networking events are not primarily about selling. They’re about making contacts, and that means paying honest attention to the people you meet, says Glen Gould, author of Meet Me At Starbucks and 101 Networking Nuggets.
5. Then, Listen to Yourself
It’s easy to get caught up in the trap of filling up air. When people get nervous, when they are feeling awkward in a social setting, some tend to blather. At a networking event, the easiest thing to do is talk about work. That’s OK, in moderation. "Avoid the minutia of what you do," says Mark Grimm. Give people the big picture, but don’t feel the need to fill every silence.
It’s hard to get out there and mingle. Networking events are famously awkward, especially for the faint of heart. The good news, for attorney Stevens at least, is that there are always a few other wallflowers in the crowd. "If you do once or twice, you realize that other people are also uncomfortable," he says. "Not everybody is a natural at this."