It’s a universal truth: networking is awkward. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. Going to work events with the sole purpose of trying to make connections that’ll benefit your career is always going to be a little uncomfortable. For most people, engaging with complete strangers and striking up a conversation with someone you know nothing about doesn’t come naturally. You have to step outside your comfort zone and put yourself out there. Here are our best tips for making networking a little less awkward.
choose events you’re interested in
There’s no point in dragging yourself to an event you’re dreading. If you’re completely uninterested in the subject matter and only showing up to make connections, it’ll be apparent. There are hundreds if not thousands of networking opportunities and events available in most major cities in Canada at any given time. Browse platforms like Eventbrite or Meetup to find local events you’re interested in. Topics closely related to your field of work will probably be most fruitful, but aim to pick events covering subjects you’re interested in. If industry-specific events aren’t available, or aren’t your cup of tea, events supporting charitable causes or issues such as women’s rights can be a good place to start.
invite a friend along
Inviting a friend or coworker to a networking event is polarizing. Some people think it’s great, others think it’s a terrible idea. Here’s our two cents: if inviting a friend will make you feel more comfortable stepping out of your shell, go for it! However, inviting someone is not an excuse to use them as a human shield and spend the entire event talking only to that person. If you bring a friend, the two of you must mingle and engage with others. If you’re part of a pair, other networkers often feel less comfortable interrupting your conversation, so you’ll need to take the initiative to bring others into your conversations.
dress in your power outfit
Dress in something that makes you feel confident. Whether that’s a bold dress or the perfect fitting pair of jeans is your call. Whatever makes you feel like you’re in your element and ready to knock it out of the park. Most networking events these days err on the side casual, especially if they’re held during the day – jeans and business casual (emphasis on the casual) are completely fine – so don’t feel like you have to dress to the nines to fit in. In fact, overdressing might actually make you feel more uncomfortable.
arrive on time
If the invite says the event starts between 8 and 8:30, aim to arrive a close to 8 as possible. It’s human nature to think that arriving fashionably late will be less awkward, since the event will already in full-swing and you won’t have to sit around awkwardly waiting for it to get started. But the opposite is actually true. The first few people in the room have an easier time staring a conversation and introducing themselves. The smaller the group, the easier it is to strike up a conversation. If you’re one of the last people in the room, chances are everyone else will have already introduced themselves and started their conversations. You’ll be left on the outside, looking to pry your way into a conversation that’s already been going on for a while.
put your phone away
We all do it: the second boredom sets in, we whip out our phones to keep our hands and minds busy. Sitting around with nothing to do and no one to talk to for even a second is unbearable. In a networking event, that’s a death knell for conversation starting. No one wants to interrupt the person tapping away on their phone. What if they’re answering an important email? So resist the urge to defer to your phone the second there’s a quiet moment. Keep your phone in your pocket, and instead look around the room and find someone who might be interested in starting a conversation.
get to know the event organizer
Unless the event is massive, the event organizer probably has a pretty good grasp on the guest list and knows many of the people around the room. They can point you in the direction of other people who it might be mutually beneficial for you to meet. Sometimes they can even help you break the ice by making the introduction. Also, it’s never a bad idea to say hello to the organizer and thank them for inviting you to the event.
start with a compliment
A compliment is a textbook icebreaker. A nice comment about an item of clothing, or their work, if you’re familiar with it, is an easy in to start a conversation. Just make sure to follow up with introducing yourself to keep the conversation going, otherwise you risk them thanking you and moving on. Also try to express genuine interest. Don’t say something nice if you don’t mean it; it can come across as disingenuous or sarcastic.
other ice breakers to try
Some easy topics to broach as conversation starters: the venue, the food, or the speaker. Most attendees probably have thoughts on all three. It’s an easy way to get the conversation started that’s relevant and can easily segue into work and building a connection.
set a goal for yourself
Instead of going into an event blindly and waiting for the event to unfold as it will, set a goal and decide how you can get the most out of it. For instance, tell yourself: I’ll introduce myself to 5 people. Having a purpose you want to achieve can help you put yourself out there and be more of an active participant, rather than an onlooker.
keep one hand free
A lot of networking events are standing room only, yet serve food and drinks. That leaves you attempting you balance a plate in one hand and a beverage in the other, which needless to say, isn’t optimal when you’re trying to meet other people. Good luck attempting to shake hands with someone while juggling a plate and a glass. It’s a recipe for disaster. Do yourself a favour: keep one hand free so you don’t have to worry about doing this awkward dance and worry about breaking or spilling something. Choose either a drink or a food, and go back for the other when you’ve finished.
approach pairs of people
We know this sounds odd… after all, who wants to be the third wheel in a conversation or interrupt a pair who are already engaged in conversation? But here’s why it works: either they’re strangers who have just met, or they came together and know they should probably be mingling. Either way, they’re probably open to conversation and will welcome a third. It’s also easier to keep a conversation going with multiple people. There’s less pressure than a two-person conversation, where the conversation can dwindle off when one person isn’t adapt with small talk.
remember you’re not alone
Last but certainly not least… remember that most people feel the same awkwardness that you do when networking. Meeting strangers is, by nature, a little awkward. It was probably drilled into your head from a young age that strangers equal bad and scary. That conditioning can be hard to shake in adulthood, even when you’re at an industry event and you know better. So when you’re feeling a little nervous or awkward about approaching someone, remember they’re probably feeling the same way, and will likely be glad to have someone come to them and take that first step.