When faced with an invitation to join a group of strangers for canapés, chardonnay and networking, there are those who high-five and plan their elevator pitch, and those who hyperventilate and plot their escape. These handy tips are for the latter group – the hyperventilating Houdinis.
SMILE, EVEN WHEN YOU’RE CRYING INSIDE Imagine walking into a room where one person is scowling and another is smiling. You’re going to approach the one with the dumb grin, right? So be that person. You need only tweak the muscles in your cheeks to turn that nervous frown upside down. Practise in the mirror before you go, and try to make your eyes smile while you’re at it – it’ll be a whole lot more believable.
ASSUME EVERYONE LIKES YOU This was a lesson I learnt from my niece. Asked if she was nervous walking into a room of new people on her first day of school, she responded, “Why? They’ll like me.” She’s right. Just as she hadn’t given those first-graders any reason not to like her, you haven’t given that room full of corporate high flyers a reason not to like you (yet). Assuming the guests think you’re a rad dude or dudette takes the pressure off. You don’t have to win them over – and everyone knows that people who aren’t trying to impress are usually the ones who do.
QUIT THE APOLOGIES Sorry, sorry, sorry. It’s a confidence killer. As soon as you apologise for joining a group or interrupting a conversation to introduce yourself, you expose how deeply uncomfortable you are just to be there. Don’t apologise – if there’s a need for it, someone will let you know. Trust me. Instead, walk up, smile, introduce yourself and – even if you’re quivering on the inside – boldly take the next step.
ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS Us vain beasts love a person who shows any ounce of interest in us, so asking your new comrade lots of questions is an easy win. Feign interest in their job; their company; their latest project. Before long you might just find that you’re enjoying the interrogation. And who knows where it could lead? Pretend you’re a probing journalist like Leigh Sales and get all the answers you need. (And don’t forget to grab some contact details, while you’re at it.)
LAY OFF THE BOOZE One drink, maybe two. Never more. This should really say: slightly buzzed, but not pissed. If you need a drink for a touch of Dutch courage, then go ahead and knock back a Pinot Grigio (or a house white, depending on your industry), but always limit yourself to a mild high, rather than an all-out slaughtering. Sure, you want to leave an impression, but we daresay losing your guts in the corner isn’t it.
BE YOURSELF, OR DON’T Decide if you’d rather blend into the crowd or stand out as your own person, then stick with your decision. Neither is wrong, but they might have different outcomes. Maybe you’re an Average Joe or Josephine and this will be a cinch, or maybe you’re a bit, well, different, in which case it’s not as easy. Either way, keep this in mind: changing yourself to fit in may work temporarily and score you some immediate goals, but it’s probably not sustainable in the long run. Plus, when you do find that person who gets you, it’s instant networking fireworks and more likely to lead to long-term connections.
JUST SAY YES If someone asks for your business card, say yes. If they invite you to head out after the event, say yes. If they ask if you’d like to get coffee, say yes. Anything, say yes. (Within reason, obviously.) You can always cancel later.
SET SOME GOALS Decide on the career goals you want to achieve in the next few years, and determine how networking is going to help you get there. This way, when you drag yourself to functions with the aim of meeting people, swapping business cards and introducing yourself, it won’t feel like a chore, but rather a step in the right direction. Think of it like this: it’s paid work, but the pay just comes later.
TRY NOT TO CARE TOO MUCH If someone is disinterested or condescending, shrug. Us introverts are known for our ability to take things personally, but this is the big, bad world of business, and people have their reasons. Everyone is trying to climb up the ladder or into the corner office with the view as fast as they can. Those vibes you’re picking up on aren’t personal, and if they are, then that dingbat is useless to you anyway. You’re not at a networking do to make friends. There are all kinds of apps and events for that! Keep your eyes on the prize, tiger.
DO AS HE WOULD This may be a little controversial, and I hope that future women won’t have to use it, but consider this: when you’re unsure of what to do, emulate a cocky male. Everyone knows one. Would he repeatedly apologise, rush through a brief self-deprecating bio then deflect further questions? No. Would he sit meekly, refusing to offer his opinion? No. Would he lead the conversation? Yes. Would he take the head of the table? Yes. I did this once at a work function and my female boss mockingly said, “Oh, look at you at the head of the table.” I wanted to stab my fork into her hand. Why should I not be at the head of the table?
DROP THAT DAMN PHONE Nothing screams, “I am uncomfortable, closed off and not ready for this” like a loner in the corner pretending to send important emails. Everyone knows you’re texting your friend about the canapés. Instead, stand up straight, wine glass in hand, smile on your face (and in your eyes) and observe the crowd. You’ll either look strong and interesting, or like you’re waiting for someone. Either is fine. Be warned, though, this is HARD. I recommend practising at a bar in advance. Not a sleazy bar, because you’ll end up with creepers all over you, but go to a nice, busy drinking hole on a Thursday evening, order a glass of wine and sit there. Watch how people interact and study the room. If you do find yourself reaching for your phone at an event, it’s time to leave. You’re not networking; you’re killing time, and probably annoying your friend while you’re at it.