Some people are born talkers who delight in getting out there and meeting new people. For the rest of us, here are seven ways to make the process a bit more fun.
1. MAKE IT A GAME.
Turn your next networking event into a scavenger hunt. Before you go, create a list of people to approach, like “a woman in a green shirt,” “two men with mustaches,” “someone holding a cup of coffee,” or even “someone who looks like they don’t want to be here, either.” Give yourself a prize for checking off every item on your list. The point is to practice getting yourself out there.
2. START THE CLOCK.
Give yourself a set amount of time to mingle and chat. Knowing that you have a scheduled departure may help you relax, and you never know—you may just find yourself in such great conversations that you want to stay a little bit longer.
3. HIT UP YOUR HEROES.
Even the most talented and successful people in your field are still just people. Don’t be afraid to approach your idols, whether on social media, via email, or in person. You won’t be the first admirer who has connected with them, and many of them will be glad to hear from you. This doesn’t mean you should immediately ask them to hook you up with a record deal or a new job, but it never hurts to know that somebody amazing wants you to succeed.
4. FIND A MEETUP.
Meetups are great for people who get overwhelmed by large, formal conferences. They’re smaller and more casual, and you can often find one very close to your house. You can get to know people who share your interests in a low-key setting without traveling, spending money, or stressing out.
5. BUT DON’T SKIP CONFERENCES ALTOGETHER.
You don’t have to go to all of them, but there are real benefits to showing up at big conferences or annual meetings for people who specialize in your field. Luckily, you’re more likely to make lasting connections at these gatherings because of something psychologists call the suspension bridge effect—being in a stressful situation (like standing on a flimsy bridge) causes people to forge faster, stronger interpersonal connections than they would have made in more relaxed scenarios.
6. DON’T THINK OF IT AS NETWORKING.
“Networking” is a dirty word for a lot of people. It can call to mind mercenary schmoozing and empty interactions undertaken just for the sake of getting ahead. So let’s call it “exploring” instead. Think of yourself as a social explorer, investigating the world with curiosity and learning about the lives and work of the people you meet. This attitude of openness will not only make you less reluctant, but it will also make you a lot more appealing.
Networking experts say the most important thing you can do is listen. Don’t start by talking about yourself, asking for something, or pushing your business card into someone’s hand. Ask people open-ended questions about themselves, and listen—really listen—to their answers. In the long run, a single genuine connection will be much more rewarding than five empty handshakes.