How to “survive” networking events

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We’ve all been told we have to network. Many of us don’t want to. Here’s some advice on how to “survive” a networking event.

There seems to be confusion about what networking is. In this article we will cover networking events and the next article will cover your professional network.

“I hate networking”

We have all either thought or said this at some point. For sure, it’s awkward being in a room full of people you don’t know and are expected to socialize. What’s worse is that we have a mental image of someone who is “great at networking”; someone who can schmooze and work the room making sparkling conversation then gracefully exit, business cards in hand, with a perfectly timed joke.

Networking is a learnable skill. I used to hate networking too, but the point came where I had to do it for my job. I won’t ever love it, but I’ve learned how to make the best of it and represent myself and my company well.

Why attend networking events?

In my opinion, everyone should attend a networking event once or twice a year. It’s good to get out there and see what’s what and you never know who you will meet or the kinds of interactions you will have. It’s also good as a professional to get out of your day-to-day with your boss and your colleagues and meet new people at different companies to inspire you and give you food for thought.

If you are a member of a professional organization, definitely stay in the know about upcoming events. Professional organizations value people’s time and typically put on high quality events that include either a guest speaker, nominations for the organization or to present an award. These are good to attend because they are popular and there is a main event from which you can draw valuable information.

The same is true at school. If your school or student association holds an event involving companies or guest speakers, attend these. If there is a company offering a networking event at their offices, this is definitely worth attending.

I would also suggest staying informed of what is going on in your area. There is probably a chamber of commerce or an alumni group that holds quality events. Select a networking event that actually interests you and try to get one or two colleagues/friends to join you. Take all the steps you can to make the event enjoyable for you. If you already dislike networking and you’re at a poor quality event, it won’t help you to see networking in a positive light.

Make a plan

It’s good to go to a networking event with plan in mind. Here are a few ideas:

  • How long to stay: If you tell yourself in advance that you will leave at a certain time, it frees you to commit and giving it an honest try, to the most of the time you are there.
  • Challenge yourself: Give yourself a little goal like you will introduce yourself to three new people during the event, for example. This helps you to stay focused and to manage your time and energy efficiently.
  • Have a topic of conversation in mind: It will be much easier to have a pleasant conversation with someone new when it flows smoothly. Many people lead with the same questions “where do you work?”, “what do you do?” and that’s fine, but it can dissolve into generic, meaningless small talk. If, on the other hand, you can bring up an issue or a trend facing your industry and ask for the person’s opinion, this is far more interesting and memorable.
  • Spend time with anyone who approaches you: If someone approaches you, try to be gracious, even if they are a bit awkward. The person who approaches you is making an effort and it’s important to be kind. Remember, they might dislike networking too!
  • Speak well of your company: No matter what, always speak well of  your company. This is especially true if your company has had negative press recently. Let’s say there was a mass layoff and someone asks you about it. You can say something like “Yes, it was hard to lose so many great people and it’s definitely had an effect on the atmosphere. Nevertheless, I think this layoff has helped us all to recommit and roll up our sleeves and this will create opportunities for those of us who are still there.” You never know who’s in front of you – this person could be your next mentor or your future boss, and you always want to be professional.

Manage your expectations

I think one of the reasons why many people dislike networking is that the promises have been overstated. Well-intentioned counselors or advisors have oversold the outcome of networking, and this has left many of us disappointed and feeling that it was a waste of time to attend.

If you go to a networking event expecting that you will find a new job or find a mentor, you will probably be disappointed. You can’t control who attends a networking event.

Your goal should be to attend and focus on what you can contribute You may get a nice surprise by meeting someone interesting with whom you can exchange afterwards or you might learn something new. You might also go home with nothing concrete to report. That’s okay. As long as you got to “practice” networking, you can consider the event a success. Each time you practice, you’ll get better at it. The day may come where there is someone you are dying to meet or you are asked to network for your company and you will be glad to have had a few networking events under your belt.

If you are currently in an active job search, I would recommend that you also read my post How to conduct a thorough job search with less effort where I discuss networking in the context of a job search.