How to network

I was at a tech event yesterday with a colleague, who saw me mingle with strangers and asked what was the secret to it. Here’s what I told her.

networking
A networking event. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ukodi/9361987927

It will be tricky at first

When I started my own tech business last year, I started attending a variety of meetups in Sydney, sometimes twice per week. I went to startup events such as Fishburners’ weekly pitches, as well as more technical events tailored for developers, like the consistently excellent React Sydney Meetup. My main goal was to grow my professional network, which was then limited to my ex-co-workers and university classmates.

And it was lonely. I stood there with a beer in my hand, alone, trying to figure out who to talk to and how to start the conversation. There were meetups where I didn’t manage to talk to anyone. Too intimidating. Sometimes, I was lucky to spot someone who looked equally lost and introduced myself. We had an okay conversation. But half the time, they were merely replying to my questions (“What’s your name? What do you do? That’s interesting, what’s your job like?”) and our chat ground down to a halt. Especially at tech events—you’ll run into introvert engineers who have no interest in networking. And that’s okay.

I quickly realised that the highest-potential networkers were systematically already engaged in another conversation. I could see groups of two, three or four people chatting away in what I’d call a “high-energy interaction”. But I couldn’t figure out how to become part of these groups. I tried approaching them, sometimes managing to physically break into the circle. The first few times, they simply ignored me. I walked away, feeling ashamed and further discouraged.

Then came the next realisation: there are vast differences between already-established groups (people who’ve known each other for a while, and probably came to the event together) versus complete strangers who’ve just met. People who came as a group may not be interested in networking at all. They don’t have anything against you—but they won’t make the extra effort to introduce themselves to you. They may even be just as uncomfortable networking as yourself, but not look like it because they’re in a group.

I started to get a feel for which groups were more likely to be complete strangers, and came up to them. More often than not, they spontaneously paused their conversation, politely introduced themselves, and either kept on with the topic at hand (now including me in the conversation) or started off with a fresh topic, inspired from our respective intros. And that’s when I knew networking wasn’t that scary.

Embrace the awkwardness

I found that a few things help increase your chances to break into a group at a networking event. Whatever happens, there’s a decent chance that you will be ignored. That’s okay. Walk away and try again. They’re the ones missing out!

Here’s what I do:

  • Good posture matters. You can boost your confidence by simply standing tall and proud. It’s science.
  • Smile. Who would want to speak to a frowning stranger?
  • Hold a drink in your hand. It doesn’t need to be an alcoholic drink. I don’t know exactly why, but I found that it makes it a lot easier to break into a crowd. Possibly because you no longer have to think about what to do with your hands—and definitely won’t put your hands in your pockets, which would give off a negative vibe.
  • Embrace the awkwardness. Do you feel self-conscious when introducing yourself? Is this your first time networking? Did you just abruptly interrupt a conversation? Say it. Own it. There’s no shame in being a novice at networking, and more often than not people will empathise and connect better.
  • Have your intro ready. There are questions you’ll hear all the time at networking events. “What’s your name?” “What do you do?”. Get your answers ready, and if possible include unusual/interesting facts—it will make it easier for others to follow up with a full-on conversation.
  • Alcohol can help. That’s why networking events often provide beer and wine. A bit of alcohol can help disinhibit you and make you more approachable. Don’t overdo it, or you’ll make a fool of yourself. Don’t rely on it long-term.
  • Learn public speaking skills. I used to go to a Toastmasters group, and I suspect it helped with my overall confidence.

It does get easier

If you had told me two years ago that I’d soon feel mostly comfortable introducing myself to a complete group of strangers at an event where I don’t know anyone, I’d have laughed at your face.

Give it a try. Keep at it, don’t get discouraged. You’ll do just fine eventually.

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