Stuffed animal heads don’t make the best company. (Source.)

How to stop being a wallflower & start working the room

The term “networking” gets a bad rap, especially in engineering circles. It conjures images of back slapping and idle chatter. Confronted with the challenge of meeting new people, many decide to stick to the handful of people they already know at a party.

I personally struggled with meeting new people in my early 20’s. It felt like an unnatural act. Why should I bother people who are all clearly happy talking to folks they already knew? Surely, if they wanted to talk to me, it would just “happen,” right?

Over time, I began to realize in the context of business networking that mostly everyone shows up to these events for the same reason — to meet new people! You’re more or less in the same boat, and once you establish a bit of a methodology for working the room it gets a lot easier. And networking isn’t just for blood-sucking sycophants — it’s a crucial business skill that you need in any role, and you need to practice to get good at it.

I’d like to share some tips with all the wallflowers out there that will hopefully get you networking in no time. First, some basics:

  1. Get to the party early. For some reason, it’s less awkward to approach a table of strangers when the room is mostly empty. The unspoken social rule is, “Well, of course we should talk. We’re the only ones here!”
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Mind if I join you?” It’s a party. If they wanted to just talk to themselves, they would have stayed in. You can always remove yourself if you feel like you interrupted an private conversation.
  3. Seek common ground in the conversation. What topic is most likely to link you to the other folks around the table? Start with no-brainers: “How you know the host?”, “Isn’t this food amazing?”, etc.
  4. Ask whomever you know at the party to introduce you to a few others. It’s totally fair game to ask the host, “Who should I meet?” It’s an easy way to get a few more conversations going.
  5. Don’t be afraid to end a conversation when you think enough rapport has been established. It may sound harsh, but if you’re there to network you shouldn’t spend all your time talking to one person.
  6. Ask if it’s ok to follow up. Ask for contact info or a business card. I usually ask people to type their email into my phone directly. Then, actually follow up!

If you’re feeling comfortable with the basics, try some of these other networking hacks:

  1. Hang out in “high flow” areas. These include the bar, the buffet, etc. When you hit a dry patch of time, just rotate between these various areas until you bump into someone new.
  2. Groups are better than 1:1. If you have to choose, approach a larger group over a smaller group because you’ll meet more people.
  3. Ride a connection from one group to another. If you establish rapport with a person, see who else they can introduce you to at the party.

Finally, I’ll leave you all with a few networking no-no’s:

  1. Don’t hand out your business card immediately, or (please) don’t ask for one up front. People find it presumptive to think that two folks who just met will want to stay in touch.
  2. Don’t sit down. You basically shut yourself off from serendipitous conversations and telegraph, “I want to be by myself.”
  3. Be sensitive to what you’re interrupting. Sometimes your company really is not welcome. That’s ok. Pay attention to the body language of the rest of the group to know if it’s acceptable to include yourself.
  4. Don’t monopolize the conversation. If you find yourself talking a lot, ask more questions, and direct your questions to people who haven’t talked much.

If you approach networking with a methodology like this, you’ll quickly start to excel at it, and who knows…maybe you’ll even enjoy it!

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