"Get out there and network" is a classic recommendation lobbed at folks who are looking for career advancement. But the ins and outs of actually going to a strange event and talking to strangers for personal gain can feel awkward at best. Here are some tried and true tips that always work for me. Never fear, it gets easier with practice!
I find that networking is easier the less I focus on my ultimate goals. It's normal to feel nervous about asking strangers for something like job opportunities or trying to find new clients, because those two cases mean *asking* for something, which can be quite difficult. Instead, think about what you can offer people. Even if it's just a few minutes of pleasant conversation, you'll be remembered fondly. Down the road you can make your ask if it's appropriate.
However -- don't make your modest goal about giving out cards or receiving cards. The mark of a nervous networker is the person who walks up to you, blurts out a sentence about their company and pushes a card into your hand. Instead I recommend focusing on having a pleasant and natural conversation. If we actually have a legitimate reason to exchange cards, I'll offer one, but a stack of cards does not necessarily mean you had a successful networking experience.
Instead, look around the room. Is there anyone standing by themselves looking at their phone, or sitting at a table looking at a brochure? That is your person. This person doesn't know anyone either. By approaching him or her, you are easing someone else's anxiety, and they'll be grateful right off the bat. Chat them up, and you have a new conference buddy!
Then you need to keep the conversation flowing. The key is to ask some questions. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, so the classics like "Where do you work?" "Where are you from?" and "Any exciting plans for the weekend?" are failsafes.
Instead of focusing on what you can get out of talking to this person, think about how you can help them -- first and foremost put them at ease in a nerve-wracking situation, introduce them to someone they should know, or share the name of a book they might enjoy reading or news tidbit from your field.
Body language is key here. Look for people who are not standing too close together, and look for signs that they are in business mode -- standing up straight, square shoulders and generally "professional." These people probably don't know each other too well, which is what you want. When you approach the group, it's quite possible that they're reaching the end of their own awkward get-to-know-you conversation, in which case they'll be happy for some new blood. Listen in to see what they are talking about, wait for a break in the conversation and add your own opinions.
Don't be offended if one of them takes the opportunity to wander off. He or she was probably looking for an exit already and your arrival provides the perfect excuse. If you are left with one person, proceed with the conversation suggestions above.
It was great talking to you! ...
When you reach out, make sure that you have a specific ask in mind. If someone wants career or blogging advice from me, I'm happy to try to help! It is more difficult if they have a general request because these are more ambiguous and it can be tough to figure out how I can help.
With networking online, the rules of in-person networking are out the window. Don't be afraid to ask for something specific.
What about you? Share your networking tips on Twitter with me @jenboynton and @WLCLV, The Women's Leadership Conference Las Vegas -- who made this post possible. Looking forward to continuing the conversation online and at the conference in July!
Image credit: MGM Resorts Foundation
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California.
When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.