I saw a great question in a LinkedIn Group: “Networking: What is it?” So far the common thread among the responses is all about building relationships. They are absolutely right. Here’s the problem. Building a relationship with a total stranger in a short amount of time (most networking events are people we’ve never met before) is TOUGH. It reminds me of a really wonderful video I recently saw about small talk. The writer struggled with building meaningful relationships in her first year away at college. It inspired her to create a movement away from small talk toward big talk. And somehow getting people “over the hump” of small talk and on to bigger, more meaningful topics, or Big Talk.
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about networking in a room full of strangers and some tips to make it easier. The original post is below, but I’d like to add one tip to the list. Make Big Talk, not just small talk at these events. Building a relationship is about adding meaning and finding purpose. So, stick your neck out and ask some big questions – I guarantee you’ll remember the conversation way better, if it’s more than just the weather.
Original post from Feb., 2014:
I walk into a room full of business people at a networking event. I don’t know a soul. Everyone is mingling and chatting and here I am, alone. This can be an intimidating situation and one that many people avoid because of how awkward it feels. Here’s the a-ha moment – most people feel the same way. You are actually in a position to help them by being the one to approach and engage. And helping others is something most people are comfortable with and willing to do.
Here are several techniques to breaking the ice at a networking event:
Upon entering the event, I scan the room for intimidated or people out of their comfort zone. I swoop in to rescue them from the awkwardness of being alone (no, I’m not wearing my Superman belt buckle or underoos). Usually they are always awash with relief and I feel great having helped someone.
The Phase In
You may be thinking what if there is NO ONE alone? Then what? That is definitely trickier. You have to balance being rude and barging in on a conversation, and politely phasing into an existing discussion. My strategy there would be to go to where there is a line forming, for instance the bar or buffet. While waiting in line, you can very politely ease into an existing conversation without seeming rude by eavesdropping. You can say, “I couldn’t help but overhear you mention snowboarding…I love snowboarding! Where do you like to go?”
The Brown Noser
If there are no lines to eavesdrop, then head over to the organizer of the event. Introduce yourself and ask if they can make a couple introductions to people you’d like to meet. The meeting organizers are VERY important. Do not underestimate their power. Usually they know many of the attendees and can match make. But you have to earn their trust and loyalty. I’ve actually gone so far as to give a Starbucks card to an event planner who has gone out her way to help me. Some may see this as bribery, but I’ve been on the event planning side, and being appreciated is something they are not accustomed to. Show them your appreciation.
The Gift Giver
Does your company have some trinkets to give away? Take a handful and pass them out. The more fun the trincket, the better. I gave away Mardi Gras style bead necklaces once at an event, I was the most popular gal there. No flashing was involved, I swear! Just laughter and smiles.
Of course, you may find you need to break away from a conversation that is dragging on, and politely excuse yourself to the restroom. I’d like to explore the art of small talk – stay tuned. Do you have any other mingling techniques? I’d love to hear them!