Do you avoid networking or treat it as a necessary evil? You are not alone; for many people, networking is a traumatic experience. How do you just walk up to a stranger, or worse, a group of strangers, and start a conversation?
Are you the type of person who hangs around the edges of the room, hoping that someone will come up to you and start a conversation? That can work, but it is limiting and can put the onus on you to answer the person’s questions when they approach you. There’s nothing wrong with that approach per se, but if you do all the talking, are you more or less likely to achieve your networking objective, which presumably is to get more business?
There are several reasons for reluctance to become a proactive networker. You may feel that people will judge you or look down on you and your business, that they are better businesspeople than you. Guess what? They are probably thinking the exact same thing!
There are, of course, people that treat networking as a competitive sport. They are there to aggressively hand out as many business cards and make as many connections as possible before the event ends. Sadly, they are missing the point; the goal should be building relationships with people, not making irrelevant connections. Think quality, not quantity.
Here are four things you can do to become more at ease at your next networking event.
Talk less. One of the best strategies to take pressure off yourself is to ask questions. A good question will allow the person standing opposite you, to do all the talking while you relax, smile, and show interest. Studies have shown that in any conversation, the person who talked the most enjoyed the interaction most. This tactic is a great way to build stronger relationships and meaningful connections.
Be curious. Building off point one, show that you are genuinely interested in the person’s business and what they sell. Ask questions that allow you to discover more about them. The more you know, the more likely you will find common threads between you and your business and them and their business.
Ask better questions. Avoid stock networking questions such as “What business are you in.” This will elicit, at best, an elevator pitch answer. Add to this list of non-questions; inquiries about the weather or whether they have been to one of these events before. Small talk won’t get you very far and will ramp up your unease; obvious questions tend to produce non-answers. Instead, ask open-ended questions like, “What do you like best about your business?” Later, ask the opposite question, “What do you like least about your business? This final question might prompt them to say they don’t like sales, administration, or something else that you and your business can help them with. Other good questions include, “What is your biggest challenge?” Again, this question has the potential to help you develop your relationship with the person and identify products or services you might provide.
Offer support. Most people at networking events are there to get business. Admittedly, some people attend for social reasons, especially after being COVID-cooped for the past few years. In either case, most people hope to get something out of attending. Once you have asked your curious questions and stimulated conversation about them, offer to help them in any way you can, regardless of whether there is an inherent business opportunity. Imagine how unique that will make you.
Networking should be viewed as something other than a competition or a way to get new business from the event itself. It should be considered a starting point for new business relationships, from which, when trust has been established, new business for your company might result.
You remove or reduce performance anxiety when you remove the need to sell or promote yourself. All it takes is the ability to ask questions that will help people open up to you.
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