How to network effectively, without feeling (too) awkward

It’s possible, we promise!

Networking with aplomb is one of the most useful skills you can develop—a tool that can help you at every stage of your career, and in your life in general. It can also be weirdly hard! Even naturally outgoing people sometimes clam up in networking situations—they can make you feel awkward, shy, or even borderline manipulative. Introverts tend to have an especially hard time. But learning to network is worth it, so we’ve prepared a few pointers to help you breeze through that cocktail hour without breaking a sweat.

Don’t show up cold—prep before the event to feel cool, calm, and (relatively) collected.

One way to minimize those jittery pre-event nerves? Prepare. Here are just a few ways to make sure you’re walking in ready to make the most of your evening.

Practice your personal elevator pitch.

Consider the questions people might ask you at a networking event. Where do you work? What do you do? What are you interested in? Practice your answers ahead of time—more than once. Are you currently unemployed? Think about how you can share that without feeling awkward or clamming up. Currently working at a company you truly hate? Find a way to express your interest in new opportunities without coming off as super negative. Looking for a job or an internship? Be able to articulate what you want. Do you have anything you could offer the people you meet? In general, think about why you’re at this particular event and why other attendees might care. Practice on a friend.

Think of event-specific talking points ahead of time.

What are three topics you can discuss? This could be anything from a relevant project you’re working on, to a new skill you’ve been trying to pick up, to an interesting article you recently read that’s relevant to event attendees.

If there are specific people you’re hoping to meet at this event, research them ahead of time. Look at their LinkedIn and Twitter profiles, read any recent interviews with them, and prepare a few questions to ask. (Stick to questions that make you seem respectful, well-informed, and professional, not stalkery—avoid things about their personal lives, even if their new puppy is a frequent social media guest star.)

Go in with purpose.

If possible, identify who is likely to be at the event. Decide who you want to speak to, figure out what they look like and how you can offer them something of value. Make your goal for the night to meet five or so specific people. Once that’s done, take the pressure off yourself, and feel free to mix and mingle more freely for the rest of the evening.

Bring business cards!

It’ll make you look professional and polished…and most importantly, people will remember how to get in touch with you. Don’t have business cards through work? You can design nice, simple, inexpensive cards on websites like moo.com.

What to focus on during the event.

You’re prepared, calm, and ready to go. Here’s how to make the most of your night.

Arrive early.

This will give you many advantages, like the opportunity to meet and engage with the planning parties. You’ll also be able to scope out and befriend anyone else who may have come in early.

When you arrive, seek out the person who planned the event to thank them. This is your first chance for a warm-up conversation, your best chance at meeting people one-on-one, and a great opportunity to find a friendly face you can circle back to over the course of the night, and who can introduce you to other people

Avoid eating during the event.

Eat beforehand. Keep in mind that some events won’t have food but will have an open bar, so eating ahead of time will prevent a glass of wine from hitting you like a shot of fireball. Also, eating detracts from the purpose of the event, which is to meet people! It’s hard to shake hands and have meaningful conversations when you’re worried about parsley in your teeth.

Use this trick to remember names.

Use a person’s name three times in conversation after being introduced, so that you cement their name in your mind more easily. “Hi, Charlie — great to meet you.” “I love your tie, Charlie, it’s so colorful!” “Oh, Charlie, I was wondering…”

Keep a hand free.

Hold your glass of wine/water in your left hand. That way, your right hand — i.e., the hand you use to shake the hands of other people — will not be worryingly moist and cold.

Look for the golden broken triangle.

That is, look for two (or three people) in conversation whose bodies are turned outward, as if they’re looking around at the crowd. Sidle on in there — that body language means there’s nothing of particular interest going on, and you could be the icebreaker they were looking for. It’s a lot more intimidating to approach a closed-off group.

Don’t neglect your body language.

You won’t have a lot of time to make a great impression, so pay attention to things like eye contact, standing up straight, and leaving your arms uncrossed. Your body language should convey confidence (no slouching, hands in pockets, or staring at the wall) while also being welcoming, sending the message that others should be comfortable approaching you to chat.

Act like a human.

Meaning: be a professional version of yourself, not a business robot. You can still joke and discuss your honest opinions—just don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to a work acquaintance. And if someone is sharing something personal, be an empathetic listener! Lean forward slightly, don’t look at your phone, nod your head in acknowledgment, ask questions, and make eye contact.

Think about how you can help.

Even if you feel new to an industry, there are still ways to help the people you meet. Make an introduction, share something useful you’ve learned, offer to be a mentor to someone with less experience—if you start off your professional relationship by helping someone out, they’ll be inclined to help you when you need it. Something as simple as sending them a recommendation for a book or a useful platform only takes a few minutes but can go a long way.

Networking doesn’t end when the event is over!

Send out LinkedIn requests that evening or the following day

If you met someone who you want to keep in touch with, send them a request on LinkedIn immediately. You can send a very short note with the request simply saying how great it was to meet them, or mentioning something you enjoyed about the conversation. It’s better to add someone right away than to wait until you need something from them—that seems more awkward and opportunistic, and you run the risk that they won’t actually remember who you are.

DO NOT add new acquaintances on Facebook, Instagram, etc., unless you explicitly discussed it at the networking event.

Keep your follow-ups personal!

If you talked about something the required a follow up, send that message through email instead of LinkedIn. It’s more personal, and more likely to net a response.

Congratulations on networking like a pro!

Remember: come in with a plan, act like a human, and follow up—at the end of the day, it’s not that complicated. You’ll have a growing network in no time.

For more advice, visit ventureforamerica.org.

Office Hours

Venture For America's field guide to working in startups and maybe even founding one of your own

Venture For America

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Creating economic opportunity in American cities by mobilizing the next generation of entrepreneurs

Office Hours

Venture For America's field guide to working in startups and maybe even founding one of your own

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