Stop feeling awkward, nervous, and lonely at networking events

Choose events wisely, go in with a plan, and focus your energy

Going in with a plan makes networking events less painful. Ok, maybe they’re just painful for me. As an introvert, it is sheer torture to be stuck in a crowded room full of people shouting to make small talk.

I always felt a bit awkward trying to introduce myself to strangers and make small talk. Standing silently, a drink in hand, in a cluster around a couple of extroverts going to town with their stories. I eventually would retire to a dark corner to stand by myself and watch the room, wondering why I was even there.

I can’t remember a single time that a traditional networking event ever generated a new opportunity for me. No new jobs. No new clients. No new partners. Not once in my 24-year Tech career.

Derek Coburn talks about a similar realization in his book, “Networking is Not Working.”

“Like most professionals, I thought the best way to grown my business was to network. And the primary way to do that was to attend networking events… I did have the reasonable expectation, I thought, that I was going to meet and connect with other professionals in a meaningful way and, eventually, welcome some amazing new clients to my practice. Unfortunately, this was an expectation that rarely realized itself.”

But, I think I was going about the whole networking process in the wrong way, led astray by these clumsy events with a name tag on my chest and a drink in my hand. Although, I did get to meet the Plumbing Parts King of Manhattan once. I also think that it took me quite a few years to understand how to redefine networking to play to my strengths and needs.

I’ve since learned some strategies for getting the most out of networking situations. Like most things, it starts with better planning in advance, long before you’re awkwardly standing there trying to figure out what to say to some stranger. I have a list of tips at the end of this story.

“So, do you come to these things often? Hot weather we’ve been having lately!”

There are three primary camps when it comes to networking events:

  1. Networking events are always amazing!
  2. Networking events are a waste of time ☹️
  3. Networking events are useful if…

Networking events are always amazing

The folks in this camp love networking. They’re the ones who always seem to be on the conference and event circuit. I’ve also noticed that they tend to be extroverts. They know everyone, and everyone knows their name (Norm!).

They believe that building your network is always a good investment, even if there is no obvious opportunity. They meet as many people as possible, and collect a bountiful bushel of business cards. Many believe that you never know when good things will happen, and you never know when someone might be able to help you later.

I do agree with these folks, to some extent. Serendipity can be pretty amazing. On occasion, I have met some wonderful people at events. I enjoyed their company. Sometimes we even became friends and stayed in touch.

But still, these chance encounters didn’t turn into a material benefit for my career or business. And, attending lots of events without a goal or a plan isn’t the best use of your precious time.

I don’t have much more to say about this camp. These people don’t need my help. They’re already enjoying extroverted networking heaven.

Networking events are a waste of time

Keith Ferrazzi, the author of Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time, states that most networking events are a waste of time.

“I have a confession to make. I’ve never been to a so-called ‘networking event’ in my life. If properly organized, these get-togethers in theory could work. Most, however, are for the desperate and uninformed.”

He clearly believes in developing a powerful network. He just doesn’t think highly of the obvious and traditional events that are simply created for the act of networking. While the folks in the first camp would beg to differ, I think he has a valid point.

I’ve attended numerous conferences, meet-ups, business lunches and dinners, events, faculty parties, etc. over the past 26 years. When the event was focused on a specific agenda with specific goals, I was able to have more intimate conversations with really interesting people. But, most events were not very focused.

Me being typically awkward at a typical event

Even the best conferences and events can’t resist having that informal cocktail hour where you get to mingle and network. Some events and meet-ups are 100% standing, drinking, mingling, and shouting to be heard. What a disaster.

In some ways, this reminds me of those dating events that artificially bring people together. Some folks try these over and over again, only to end up sad and frustrated. Kudos to you if you met your significant other at such an event (or using some service), and have had a loving, lasting relationship. But, most people do not.

I often tell my frustrated single friends to focus on doing what they truly love to do, and this will enable them to meet others who share the same interests and passions. This already creates a stronger foundation than simply being at the same dating event at the same time.

Ferrazzi recommends the same for networking. Skip the traditional events and meet people through more meaningful activities.

“Your passions and the events you build around them will create deeper levels of intimacy. Pay attention to matching the event to the particular relationship you’re trying to build.”

Brian Uzzi (Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management) and Shannon Dunlap, (a journalist and writer based in NYC) call this the Shared Activities Principle.

“Potent networks are not forged through casual interactions but through relatively high-stakes activities that connect you with diverse others”

Not all activities are equally successful at facilitating this. They have to “evoke passion in participants, necessitate interdependence, and have something significant at stake.” So, it’s no wonder that basic networking events fail when they simply ask people to randomly get together and talk in a noisy room.

Networking is useful if…

As you may have guessed, I fall into this third point of view on networking. I was in the second camp and ready to give up on all events until recently. Part of my change of heart was being smarter about the events I attend (very few now), and part of it was being more strategic about who I meet and what we discuss.

I also listened to a James Altucher podcast with Scot Cohen on the topic of networking and came away with a fresh perspective on how to make it a really positive activity. It’s not about shallow interactions, collecting business cards, or “what’s in it for me?”

  1. Deliver value and help others, with no expectation of anything in return (Gary Vaynerchuk talks about this as well).
  2. Be a connector who helps good people connect with other amazing people for their mutual benefit.
  3. Don’t hide behind social media. Liking and commenting on posts isn’t really connecting and networking, as much as we would like to think that it is.
  4. Meet people face to face as much as possible. This can be in person, but video chat works amazingly well now too. Over the past year, I’ve developed a strong global network this way.
  5. Have fun with it! This goes back to Ferrazzi’s recommendation to focus on activities that you are passionate about and enjoy.
“Networking is not about calling people you know. It’s about helping where you provide value. And that requires, before anything else, understanding who you are, what you need to learn, the value you can deliver, and when you need help to deliver that value.”

Yes, networking can be useful if you attend — or even create — the right events, create an intentional and strategic plan for the event, structure the environment to play to your strengths, meet and invite the right people, and have smart conversations. In his book, Coburn provides some good advice for creating better networking events (e.g., structured lunch discussions) and even getting better results from larger events that others host.

I’ve also found that I’ve had much greater success with networking when I am one of the speakers at an event, or on a panel. I’ve never had much luck breaking into conversations and meeting interesting people that way, if I was simply another face in a sea of hundreds, or even thousands, of other attendees.

But, when I was a speaker, I got to talk at length on a topic that was meaningful for me. Then, the audience members would self-select if they enjoyed my talk. If they wanted to connect and talk more, they would approach me.

From my Medium article, “How to Conquer an Introvert’s Fear and Loathing of Public Speaking”:

Not only was public speaking different from these other social situations, but it was also the answer to my natural human need to be heard. If you’re an introvert, I’m sure you understand what I mean. In a small group setting, the extroverted individuals tend to dominate the discussion. When you’re uncomfortable with interrupting others, drawing attention to yourself, and speaking loudly, your thoughts and opinions are rarely shared. I unexpectedly discovered that public speaking gave me this opportunity.

A plan for your next networking event

If you’re still feeling stressed about an upcoming networking event, I don’t blame you. It does take intentional planning, preparation, and practice to get real value out of them. Here are a few steps that you can take to start to have better experiences with events and networking overall.

  • First, stop attending networking events that aren’t clearly aligned with your goals. Networking for the sake of networking isn’t fun or useful for most of us. It’s time for that to stop. There are only 24 hours in a day, and there are so many other ways to invest your time to advance your career or grow your business.
  • Choose a few events and activities where you will spend your networking energy wisely. Making meaningful connections and adding the right people to your network is absolutely useful. But, choose the right activities, where you will find the right people, who share a common vision, and want to accomplish the same goals that you do.
  • Narrow your focus to participate in events where you get a chance to speak, either giving a talk or being on a panel. You know that I believe that public speaking is great for your career (or business) anyway. It also is more effective for better networking.
  • Have a strategy for what you want to get out of the event overall. What’s your goal? Why are you attending? What do you want to learn? Who do you want to connect with? Who should you invite? What do you want people to know about you and what you do?
  • With that in mind, have a short blurb ready that describes what you’re up to right now when people ask “What do you do?” I know that sounds silly, but I’ve been caught off guard now that I no longer have some simple job title at a known company.
  • It’s difficult for an introvert to cold start a discussion. So, read a few recent news articles that are relevant for the conference and the people who will be there. Create some high-quality conversation starters by researching additional related topics. For example, “What do you think about the iPhone X and the security implications of Face ID?” or “Dara Khosrowshahi, the new CEO of Uber, seems solid. I think he’s going to a real positive influence there.”
  • Identify and create a short list of key people you want to meet at the event. You can even proactively invite some of these people, if you think they won’t be there. I remember a few networking events that I didn’t want to attend unless certain people were going to show up, so I invited them and made sure we would connect.
  • As much as possible, find opportunities for one-on-one or very small group discussions. Trying to get a word in edgewise is frustrating when you’re standing in a large cluster of people. Don’t waste your energy nervously shuffling your feet on the periphery of a big circle around someone who is the center of attention. It feels like a bizarre popularity contest. What a waste of time and energy. Move on and focus on a few other people you really want to meet.
  • You will run out of steam if you feel like you have to talk about you, you you. Instead, ask lots of questions about them. Most people love to talk about themselves and share their opinion. “Where are you from? What do you do? How do you like it there? What do you think will the biggest influence in the industry next year? What do you think of industry trend ABC? What about the announcement last week about XYZ?”

I hope this helps you get more out of your next networking event. If you have other useful tips and advice, feel free to share them in the comments. I’d love to hear them!

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