When I’ve been at an event with someone else, they are often mystified by what they see as an extreme extrovert. I will talk with anyone and can generally carry a conversation even if the other person is shy or awkward. I’ve gotten comments, “Wow, you’re a natural, I could never do that.” But like any skill, it did not appear full-grown from my head and instead was deliberately and methodically grown. Here’s how I did it, so you can too.
The first step is figuring out WHY you want to network, and it shouldn’t be just because someone told you it’s good for your career. Without a goal, you won’t know whether an event was successful. Here are some possible goals.
- Learn about new technology/best practices in your field.
- Learn a new skill.
- Make friends.
- Promote content you worked on.
- Get a new job.
- Learn what other jobs entail so you know if you want the same job.
- Learn about new companies.
- Get help with a technical/business problem.
- Find clients.
- Find investors.
- Find guests for your podcast (that might just be me).
Now that you have your goal, it will help with everything else. The next step is picking an event. When I first started my goal was “making friends” and I went to every event I could find on Meetup that had the word “tech”, “women” or “friend” in it. This meant I went to lots of events that I didn’t feel great about after. Shockingly, going to a lecture about Django does not result in hundreds of new friends. At those events, people tend to be more interested in learning.
I realized that what I should be doing is finding a relaxed atmosphere, with people of shared interests who are also open to making new friends. One type of event I thought would work was board game nights or casual volleyball games. But events based around a competitive activity hits the “shared interest” category but not “casual atmosphere” or “open to making new friends”. At first, I would leave these events feeling sad, like, why can’t I make a new friend? But when I finally realized the type of event was the issue, I was able to find the correct one for me and actually hit it off with people.
After you have narrowed down the type of event, you actually have to go and talk to people. I know, it’s the worst, but if you’re prepared you can accomplish your goals faster and get home to watch Netflix.
You walk into a room of people all talking to each other in small groups. You stand around awkwardly trying to figure out how to break in. This is hopefully going to be the worst part of the event, so brace yourself. How to find someone to talk to? Hopefully, there is someone else alone filling out a name tag or getting a drink you can start with. Try to catch their eye, smile and say Hi. If they don’t seem receptive, move along, there are plenty of people. That should be in your mind the entire event. Don’t worry if one interaction goes poorly, there’s plenty of other people to talk to and you can also just leave and try again another day.
If everyone has already grouped up, try to find one that has a small gap. Here’s an explanation of the PacMan Rule.
Going to a conference? Yes! Introduce yourself. Say hello. Chat to people. They're lovely. Really! And if you're already chatting in a group, make your group approachable using @ericholscher's Pac-Man Rule.— Dylan Beattie 🇪🇺 (@dylanbeattie ) March 29, 2019
Here's how it works.
Have fun! pic.twitter.com/QklklD43Me
Sometimes people don’t leave a gap and you have to just push your way in. Stand as close to inside the group as you can and say Hi as soon as there is a break in the conversation. I generally say, “Sorry for interrupting, what were y’all talking about?”. That way there’s less pressure for them to restart the conversation and you to be the center of attention. Sometimes this results in you joining the group, or sometimes part of the group will break off and form a new group with you. Sometimes you get completely ignored and never get to say hi. Just wander off without saying anything and try another group. Same thing if you realize the topic is distasteful or not interesting. Don’t feel like you need to linger or come up with an excuse to leave. By employing this you will feel like you’re wasting less time on interactions that go nowhere.
You’ve successfully joined a group, hooray! Now they expect you to talk, oh no! Here’s a list of icebreakers you can use at any event. These are good because they are specific, show you are interested and listening, and involve you sharing as well. No one likes being interrogated, but people generally like talking about themselves.
- What brings you here tonight?
- What are some other Meetups/Conferences/Events that you like?
- What do you do?
- Here’s what that job sounds like to me, is that what it is really like?
- Do you like it?
- I’ve recently started watching/listening/reading this, have you?
- I’ve been looking for more recommendations in this genre, do you have any suggestions?
After the warmup, try to steer the conversation to whatever your goal is. Did you learn they have the domain knowledge to answer a technical/business question? Do they work somewhere you’re interested in? Do you think they could benefit from your consulting services? You don’t want to come on too strong but eventually get to your goal if they seem receptive.
Finally, if it was a positive interaction, make sure to get their contact info. Try to get theirs instead of handing out a business card, because then you are relying on them to remember and contact you. My favorite method is to pull out my phone and get them on Twitter or LinkedIn immediately. I’ve posted screenshots of my favorite hidden LinkedIn feature below that makes it faster to connect.
If you use any of these tips or have any of your own networking best practices, please LMK!