My father, a first-generation Italian-American loved to preach about how “it’s not about what you know but, who you know.” Given that my dad dropped out of high school to help with the family business and later went on to join the police academy, his affection for this cliche may have been born from his need to cover his insecurity about his education. He recognized, though, that knowing the right people provided a real advantage, regardless of how intellectually competent you might be. Years later, when I began my professional career, his words echoed in my head, especially when I was forced to confront the dreaded networking event.

I’ve been an introvert all my life so when it came time for me to network at various events, I was filled with angst and worried that I would have nothing to say. Some people are hard-wired to love meeting new people. I have never been one of those people. I do enjoy a good conversation and always feel elated when I meet someone new and interesting. But despite that, I have typically avoided situations where I have to work a room.  

“Fortunately, in my effort to help others be more successful at networking, I have spent a lot of time unpacking my own issues with it.”

If I do find myself at an event, I struggle to figure out how to walk up to someone and say hello. Instead, you will usually find me standing in the corner with my phone clutched in my palm so I can gracefully look down as if some very important message has come through. This is all rather ironic since I teach people how to communicate and often coach on how to effectively network. I am the perfect embodiment of the idiom: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Fortunately, in my effort to help others be more successful at networking, I have spent a lot of time unpacking my own issues with it.

Setting aside the obvious difficulties of making painful small talk, encountering people who will not stop talking long enough for you to gracefully exit the conversation, and balancing a drink while holding some finger food and still being able to gesture, the inherent challenge with networking is the goal of finding people who can help you. One of the key strategies of networking is to always have an ask in mind. You want to be prepared to let someone know what you might need from them. For some people—myself included—this is very challenging because we have to make ourselves vulnerable and accept the risk that some people might not be willing to help.

“When you’re walking around a room with a drink in your hand looking for someone to meet, it’s always helpful to be ready with something to say.”

Nonetheless, networking is a crucial tool for personal and professional advancement so opting out is really not an option. Is it possible to actually enjoy networking even when you’re someone like me? Well, thankfully, I’ve done some research and found that there are some great tips for making networking both enjoyable and successful.

Use your communication skills

The best way to practice and showcase all the work you have done to improve your communication skills is during those short 1:1 conversations. When you’re meeting someone for the first time and have to make a good impression quickly, tapping into your body language and vocal skills are sure to give you an advantage. Plus, focusing on how you are doing it and the comfort of knowing that you know what to do, might make the whole situation less painful.

Flip the script

Most of the best tips on how to successfully network involves being able to share info about yourself and figuring out what you want to get out of the interaction. What if you turned that around and instead of telling, you asked? Find out about the other person and learn what they might need. You’re making the experience easier for them and for yourself because, by learning about them, you can quickly figure out an alignment and more organically determine how you can help each other.

Practice your elevator pitch

Don’t underestimate the value of practicing what you’re going to say in these informal interactions. When you’re walking around a room with a drink in your hand looking for someone to meet, it’s always helpful to be ready with something to say. Reduce your stress and anxiety by practicing your elevator pitch. It can be something simple like this: “Hi, my name is Tammy and I help people improve their communication skills.” Trust me, that always evokes some type of commentary from others. It is simple, yet provocative because it taps into a lot of experiences many of us share. Think about what it is you want to share when introducing yourself and try it out a few times so you can hear what you sound like.

Set realistic expectations

Most importantly, don’t venture out to a networking event expecting to land your next job or finding someone to invest in your startup. Relationships take time to build and the person you may have casually chatted with might be connected to someone else who could be beneficial to your growth. Remember that you are planting seeds for the future and every new contact is a stepping stone. Make sure you don’t beat yourself up if you come home with a small collection of business cards. Instead, find at least one thing that you can put in the win column and appreciate the fact that you showed up and connected with other humans.

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