You may have a thousand followers on Facebook and LinkedIn, you may be an overachiever in your field and you may have even been lauded with awards and appreciation for your work. But does the thought of networking and making small talk in a crowd of strangers make you weak in the knees? Do you dread the very idea of being at an event without knowing how to start a conversation and worry that you might be judged if you blurt out something uninteresting? Most often, the socially awkward ones among us go to such events and either stick to people they already know, or they stuff their faces with food and wine and leave without catching anyone’s attention. Does this sounds all too familiar? Then, read on.
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Networking is almost an occupational hazard to some these days. Author and entrepreneur Andrew Griffiths compares it to getting your teeth pulled. You know it’s necessary, but you really don’t want to do it. However, it is important to understand the importance of networking in today’s world— and we don’t just mean online networking. According to John Bennett, a professor of Behavioural Science at the McColl School of Business, almost 60-80 per cent of the jobs today are found through personal relationships. Even as social media is taking the world by storm, making offline and real personal connections have not gone out of style. They are, in fact, crucial in your professional journey.
Even if you feel more comfortable engaging with people online than in person, you need to accept the fact that face-to-face networking is an extremely useful skill you need to have if you want to build strong, lasting business relationships. So here are a few tips for the socially awkward to master the skill of networking.
It may sound strange to have a rehearsed opening line, but this will save you a lot of time thinking of one on the spot and can also make you more confident. Once you get to a networking event and see the huge crowd there, it’s almost next to impossible to think of something intelligent to catch people’s attention. Do your homework and find out who is likely to be at the event. Read up on them on social networking sites like LinkedIn and come up with a few questions to break the ice. Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore says, “My typical go-to questions always revolve around food and travel because everybody loves to eat and almost everybody loves to travel.” You could also start off by mentioning a mutual friend, a seminar you both attended or a company you were both associated with. For more ideas, here are a few effective conversation starters that may be of help.
You may have set your mind on meeting someone important at the event, but don’t let your social awkwardness make you interrupt an important conversation and have you looked on upon as an intruder. Be smart and read social signs depending on the way people interact with each other. People at events can usually be found alone or in groups of two and three. Approach the lone ones first –like you, they are probably waiting to be spoken to by another person. In case of groups of two, look for those who are standing in a ‘V’ formation rather than facing each other. This means they are open to more people joining them. As for groups of three, stay away from the Os, or those who are standing in a circle. Look for groups standing in a U. Keeping these tactics in mind will reduce the chances of being unnoticed or dismissed in the crowd.
Your social awkwardness can also be your strength. In his book, ‘How To Win Friends And Influence People’, Dale Carnegie discusses the importance of letting people talk and listening to them when they speak. Carnegie points out that people love to talk about themselves. Get them to talk about their experiences and listen sincerely. In this way, you can have a great conversation with someone without speaking much. Also, everyone appreciates and remembers those who listened to them. Ask them relevant questions after hearing them out. They will be more inclined to answer truthfully because you have invested your time and attention when they were speaking.
It is important to sustain conversations long enough to make a meaningful connection. But it is also important to know when to jump ship and connect with the next person. When you see that a conversation is going off course or if you know that you are running out of time to network with other important people before the event ends, make a polite exit. Say something like, “So do let me know how your project goes. I would love to hear how it turned out.” This will show them that you are interested in what they do but that you need to move on at the moment. Depending on whom you’re talking to, you could even be direct and ask, “Have you seen [person you want to meet]? I really need to meet him/her tonight.” This, too, will politely tell them that it is important for you to network with others at the event.
Remember that networking is the beginning of a long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationship. So be yourself, and don’t put on an act of being what you are not. Sometimes, you may find that some conversations or networks just don’t happen even after a lot of trying. Relax. Don’t try to force connections that do not seem natural. So the next time you are at a networking event, try to leave all the awkwardness at the door and have some fun!