According to the National Institute of Public Health, 74% of all Americans suffer from “speech anxiety,” which helps explain why so many of us aren’t very good at networking. Today I’m going to provide some suggestions to help you get more comfortable with talking to strangers at networking events.
- The first thing to realize is that those strangers are at the event for the same reason you are: to meet new people and make new connections. And, statistically speaking, 74% of them are going to be as intimidated by you as you are by them. What this means is that if you make the first move—go up to a stranger and introduce yourself—the most likely response is going to be relief. This works especially well if you look around the room and find someone who is standing alone and/or looking overwhelmed or lost.
- You’re going to feel a lot more confident if you have thought carefully about what it is you are trying to achieve at the event and have prepared some “opening remarks.” Are you trying to get a job? Have a brief introduction that lets others know what it is you’re hoping for as a career. Are you looking for suggestions of good companies to work at? Again, be prepared with a few observations about the type of place you’d like to work. Are you looking for someone to partner with for a new business idea? If so, have your 30-second elevator speech about that new business ready to deliver at any moment. The trick to this is practice—you don’t want your comments to sound rehearsed, but you need to rehearse a lot to get them to sound like they’re off-the-cuff remarks.
- Ask questions, and listen to what people say. Most people are more at ease when they are talking about things they know about, and the thing we all know best (or at least I like to think it is) is who we are and what we want out of life. Ask them about their current jobs—what they like and don’t like about them. Ask them about where they went to school, what they studied, how it has helped them. Ask them how they knew about this event, if they’ve been to similar events, if they would recommend particular events as good networking opportunities. Ask them how they use social media, such as LinkedIn. Avoid questions that can be answered “Yes” or “No.” And once they start talking, listen to what they say and respond appropriately.
- Make eye contact. When you introduce yourself, when you’re talking or listening. Throughout the exchange, make regular eye contact to demonstrate that you are interested in talking with them.
- Really, it’s that simple. A smile makes you look friendly and will actually put you more at ease. It also makes you more approachable, so you may not have to initiate every conversation!
- If food and drink are available at the event, don’t load up your plate and take a drink at the same time. In fact, you may want to forego the food altogether. First of all, if your hands are full, you (1) won’t be able to eat the food and (2) more importantly, won’t be able to shake hands. Also, if you’re eating, you run the risk of (1) talking with food in your mouth (YUCK!), (2) awkward pauses while you chew and swallow, (3) getting food stuck in your teeth (YUCK!), and/or (4) sending little flecks of food onto the person you’re talking with (YUCKIEST!). Holding a drink in your hand is fine, but if it’s an alcoholic beverage, pace yourself! You want to make an impression, but you want it to be a good one!
- Be optimistic and enthusiastic about yourself, your ambitions, and your prospects. Don’t talk about how much trouble you’ve had finding a good job, or how much you hate your current job. Find ways to demonstrate professionalism and experience without sounding like you’re bragging about yourself. Learn to walk the fine line between confidence and arrogance.