Networking for the Socially Awkward

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You’ve just walked into a crowded room full of people you don’t know. Your mission is to meet new people, make friends, and build a network. How do you feel?

That used to be my ultimate nightmare. Every time I had to go to a networking event, I would always end up wondering, “Why do I waste my time?” Truthfully, networking events are nerve-wracking. Parties full of strangers still make my palms sweaty.

But here’s what I really have to tell you: It doesn’t have to be stressful! Eventually I got so tired of going to overwhelmingly awkward events that I became determined to find a way to change it.

As a recovering socially awkward person, I have figured out the key to unlocking the potential of networking events. Today I am going to share those tricks with you.

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If You Feel Dirty, You’re Not Alone

Many people find professional networking absolutely disgusting. In fact, they find it so distasteful that it makes them feel morally and physically dirty. Harvard Business Review asked 306 adults working at various organizations to write about times when they participated in a professional networking event or a social networking event. They were then asked to complete the following word fragments: W _ _ H, S H _ _ E R, and S _ _ _. These word fragments were first used by Chen-Bo Zhong of the Rotman School of Management and Katie Liljenquist of the Marriott School of Management as a measure of subconscious preferences.

Participants who recalled a professional networking wrote words associated with cleanliness — like “WASH,” “SHOWER,” and “SOAP” — twice as frequently as those who had recalled a social networking event. Those recalling a social encounter wrote more neutral words such as “WISH,” “SHAKER,” and “STEP.”

In other words, although most participants viewed social networking as a positive experience, they tended to view professional networking events designed to enhance their careers as negative.

In a world full of constant digital connectivity with very little face-to-face interaction, networking is a necessity. Professional networks can lead to more business opportunities, increased knowledge, improved innovative capacity, quicker advancement, and improved status and authority. Initiating and nurturing professional relationships can also improve the quality of work and career satisfaction.

Quality Trumps Quantity

When it comes to networking, quality always trumps quantity. There is a penchant to meet lots and lots of people when networking that is most likely a result of the social media obsessed world that we live in. We’re told every day that the more Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, Instagram followers, and Facebook friends we have, the better we are. However, rarely does simply knowing a whole lot of people in a superficial way provide an advantage.

Andrew Sobel wrote the book Power Relationships. In the book he details the interviews he conducted with hundreds of successful executives. What he found is that out of hundreds, if not thousands, of interpersonal relationships, most could only identify 25 or 30 relationships that had positively impacted their careers. He also found that they recognized those key relationships right from the start.

Create a Relationship Action Plan

Sit down and plan your networking efforts. One fatal networking mistake is the failure to realize that building a network is the same as any other goal. Outline who you want to build connections with and how you plan to do it.

Start by making two lists. The first one details the people you have already met and people you want to continue strengthening your relationship with. The second list identifies people you want to meet. They can be leaders in your company, community figures, or people in your social circle.

After your list is solidified, the next step is to create an action plan. Form a strategy detailing the best ways to connect with them. For example, if you’re meeting someone for the first time, focus on where and when you might make the connection. If you want to strengthen a relationship with someone you’ve already met, set up monthly coffee dates. Now that you’ve got that action plan together, you’re ready to get out there and meet people!

You’re There, Now What?

At a networking event, whatever you do, DON’T stand right at the entrance to the room. This is by far the worst spot! When people walk into an event, they instinctively want two things: they want food (or drink) and they want to scan the room. Anyone you engage immediately as they enter an event will be thinking about those two things instead of making that very important connection with you.

There are two great places to stand in order to maximize your opportunity to meet people. One is right where people exit the bar- specifically where they head when they leave the bar with drink in their hand. They’re ready to mingle! This location makes for super easy conversations.

The second great place is found in a line, or a queue. Never pass up the opportunity to meet people standing in a line. It is truly the easiest (and least awkward) way to meet people. The person standing in front of you and behind you is a captive audience, so to speak. An added bonus is that you can quickly end the conversation once you get your drink or food if you don’t want to continue talking with them.

Not sure what to talk about? Check out the list of killer conversation starters at this link:

It can be hard to start a conversation with a someone new. In her book, Captivate, Vanessa Van Edwards has broken down conversation into three categories:

  1. First Five Minutes: This is your first impression and when you decide if someone is worth getting to know. It can happen professionally, romantically, or socially. This level is the front door — can you get invited inside someone’s inner circle?
  2. First Five Hours: Once you have made it past the first level, you get to have a first meeting, first phone call or first date. You have the chance to move past first impressions into rapport building.
  3. First Five Days: This is the time when a solid level of trust and a serious connection is made. This could be a romantic connection, but it could also be a business association or friendship. The first five days often make or break many a long-term relationship.
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Don’t Forget

The follow-up is important. Without the follow-up, even a master of networking will fail to build a lasting relationship. Within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of meeting someone new, you should send a short email — a reminder of who you are and what you talked about. This establishes your connection, expresses interest, and opens up a line of communication so you can connect again in the future. Everyone is busy, so if you don’t connect within the first twenty-four hours, it’s possible you could be forgotten.

A good rule of thumb is to follow up quarterly with acquaintances and at least once per month with people you’re trying to build a closer relationship with.

Need help with content for your follow-up interactions? Here are some easy ideas:

  • Pass on relevant articles that add professional value
  • Wish people a happy birthday.
  • Inform people about opportunities they may be interested in.
  • Be a “Super Connector”- this is my favorite. Everyone knows that person who seems to know everyone. Those people are “super connectors.” If the super connector can’t help someone, she has a list of people who can and can make the necessary introductions.

You may not have the contact list of a super connector yet, but you can spend a little bit of time each week connecting people who should know each other. All you need to do is remember what the people in your network need and what their strengths are, and then introduce people whose needs match another person’s strengths.

It’s Not About You

You will never fully reap the benefits that come from networking if you think it has anything to do with you. Surprising?

If you want to get the most out of each encounter, remember to ask this one question: “Can I help you?” This one question is the most effective way to build long-lasting connections. Once you help someone, you instantly become more likable. And valuable. You have eliminated some of their stress and added value to their life. Just as showing your appreciation creates a positive image, helping someone also builds your positive reputation. Focus on other people and not yourself.

How you help people doesn’t have to be intricate and difficult. Simply offer your knowledge or time. It’s a relatively small price to pay to gain a new relationship.

Make it your goal to find out what their biggest challenge is and what motivates them every day. If you ask others about their journey, before you know it, that person will find you fascinating, even though you have been trying to learn about them!

The bottom line is this: Networking is a science. It needs to be practiced regularly just like anything else. The more deliberate you are in your efforts, the faster you’ll build relationships, If you learn to take a few calculated social risks and follow up, you will be rewarded with some amazing new relationships!

HR Professional | Life-long Learner | Facilitator | Leader | Speaker | Entrepreneur | Author | Connector

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