Okay. Time for full disclosure. I’m not cool.
I’ve tried really hard to be that easy, breezy, “so nice to meet you, aren’t we both fabulous” kind of person.
But, sadly, I am not.
I’m not sure which occasion made me accept my fate. It could be that time when the entire platform heel of my shoe fell off, and I had to attach it to my foot with packing tape. It could be the moment I realized my backpack was making the hem of my dress ride up just a teeny bit too far. It could be...you know what? I think you get the idea.
So, now that you know the truth, it’s time for the good news.
Even us awkward, shy, and nervous people can network. It took time and practice, but my confidence has grown -- which is a good thing since event marketing is a core part of my job as a marketer... 😬.
And, guess what? If I can do it, I have no doubt you can too!
The Top Nine Networking Tips for Real People
Here are the top nine networking tips I've discovered in through my journey in event planning. We'll go through each one of them in-depth, with real tips that implement at your next event. (Even if you're a nervous networker, like so many of us are!)
9 Best Business Networking Tips
- Try and be as sincere and authentic as possible
- Don't be afraid to acknowledge the awkward
- Actively listen, and ask smart questions
- Hold a glass of water to calm your nerves
- Don't forget to bring your business cards
- Use your phone to research people you want to meet
- Keep an upright posture and don't forget to smile
- Help yourself remember names with some of these tricks
- Take a breather and relax - you've got this
Here are a few networking tips for events that have saved me on numerous occasions. Let’s start with the most important thing – the need for sincerity.
1. Be sincere and authentic when networking
This is the No. 1 tip that has served me time in and time out. You know what us nervous people have going for us? We’re nervous because we care. Some people network at professional events with one sole purpose: They are tuned into WiiFM. “What’s in it for me?” They only want to meet people to see what they can get from them.
If you’re reading this article, I doubt you are one of those people.
Say what you want to say, to the people you want to say it to, and don’t make up BS. Us nervous people aren’t made to BS. And that is a very good thing!
If you don’t like a speaker’s presentation, don’t introduce yourself and tell them you did. You’re already nervous. Now, if you decide you’re going to lie for personal gain, it’s going to show. And you’re just going to feel worse.
However, if you have a genuine question you want to ask the speaker individually, go for it! If there’s a speaker you really loved, who inspired you, you can tell them! When you are truly invested in what you are saying, you sincerity (as well as your appreciation of the person!) are evident.
I did this with Derreck Kayongo, founder of the Global Soap Company and former CEO at Center for Civil and Human Rights, at the B2B Marketing Forum.
I was truly uplifted and inspired from his talk. I introduced myself and told him thank you, followed up with a thank you on LinkedIn, and ended up having dinner with Derreck when he was speaking in Chicago. Having dinner with a keynote speaker is not a common occurrence, but this shows where sincerity is evident and appreciated.
If you meet someone you admire, show your appreciation. If the conversation continues, then it’s okay to start asking for things like guidance and mentoring. If you do have a genuine opportunity that is beneficial for them and your company, you can put it out there.
It comes down to trusting your gut. If it feels insincere or inauthentic, don’t waste your energy.
2. Acknowledge the awkward
Meeting people can be awkward by nature. And hey, guess what – we’ve all been there. I promise, even the most suave, most chic, and most confident individuals have all had those moments of uncertainty, especially at professional events.
Acknowledging the awkward relates to being authentic. Sometimes we’re just not sure what to do at events. When you’re standing there, with that awkward pause just waiting to be filled and you’re not sure how to fill it (even though it’s the third event you’ve been to in the last two months), say...well, just say that!
Be honest: “I get so nervous meeting people at these things!”
There’s a good chance that the person you’re with might feel exactly the same way. Now you’ve broken the ice, and you could find yourself in a real (normal!) conversation with another professional like yourself.
Hey, look! You're doing it - you're networking!
Plus, this shows you are genuine and trustworthy. Studies have actually shown that being perceived as trustworthy matters more than coming across as confident. Woo hoo – thank you science!
3. Listen and ask questions when professional networking
You’ve heard it before but it really is true. People LOVE to talk about themselves. Studies have even shown that our brain lights up with a happy buzz when we do so.
If you’re feeling anxious, focus on listening. People will like being around you, and you’re giving them an opportunity to feel good talking about themselves. (Who knows? This could even make them feel more positively about you!)
Even with your best listening skills, you still run the chance of lulls in conversation. This is when you can ask questions.
Have a couple of questions ready that you can ask at professional events. If it’s a big conference, you can ask how far away they came from. If you’re in the same city, you can ask, “How far from here is your office?” or “Are you from the city?” At any even you could ask, “How long have you worked in the industry/your current company?”
Yes, I know. These questions sound trivial. They are the definition of bland small talk. But those questions could open up a legitimate connection you have with the person; that's how event networking begins.
And guess what – we all do it. These are the questions that will get you through!
4. Hold onto a drink. Then, proceed with caution.
Holding a drink in your hand helps. You can take a sip when you’re nervous or unsure. Professional events will have something to drink – if nothing else there should be water!
In the words of my favorite acting teacher Howard Fine, “Your body knows the truth.” (His students include Jared Leto, Brad Pitt and Salma Hayek, to name a few, so it's pretty safe to say Howard knows what he's talking about!) The physical action of taking a drink, something your body knows, will ground you. It helps put your subconscious at ease. You can also take a sip if there’s a pause in the conversation and you’re not sure what to say. Holding a drink will also minimize any other nervous tics, such as cracking your knuckles or twirling your hair.
However, if you’re taking a lot of sips while networking, you might want to consider a non-alcoholic option. I’ve realized that mistake when 15 minutes has passed and oh – hey look at that, my wine glass is empty. Oops.
Think about food choices as well. I am a big proponent of eating when you are hungry, especially if there’s alcohol. Just make sure you think about the items you choose. Look out for situations where you’ll be juggling a plate, fork, and drink with no table to set down your items.
If you are hungry, by all means eat. I cannot stress that enough! My main point is try to avoid foods which could get messy. Especially if it’s more than one bite. Especially if you also have a purse.
Imagine the situation: A waiter brings a tray of caprese skewers. You politely take one, then try to continue the conversation and NOT talk with a mouth full of food. Suddenly you’re worried you have a drip of olive oil on your chin.
But you have your drink in one hand, your half-eaten caprese skewer and napkin in the other, purse precariously balanced on your shoulder. And now you have to get that napkin to your face. It’s totally okay if that happens, and not a big deal at ALL (see my last networking tip, “Let it Go”), my point is simply that I think about the food I select at events.
You can also look for places where you can set down your food or drink. If there are tables of any kind, choose that as your position to perch, and you will be saved from any sticky scenarios! Plus, it’s a great place to meet people, as others want to do the same!
And hey, if you’re starving and find yourself dropping a ball as you practice this juggling act, go back to tip number two, and acknowledge the awkward.
A couple of my go-to lines are:
- “It’s so hard to hold everything at these events!”
- "So, what part of the city do you live in?"
- “Oh my gosh, do I have food on my face?” <insert nervous laugh here> “You would not believe how many times I’ve done this!”
Yes. One of my go to lines involves food on my face. I’m not proud.
But it goes back to being sincere. People recognize that feeling because they’ve felt it too, and you’ve now given them a chance to relate to you.
5. Have your business cards AND phone handy.
If you meet someone you genuinely want to connect with again, have your business cards and phone ready. If you’re a fan of dresses (like me!) the ones with pockets are THE BEST for business cards. Granted pockets in pants work too, of course!
Pockets mean I have my phone and business cards handy while networking. I don’t have to dig around in my (insanely stuffed) purse, attempting to find that card in front of a new contact.
Thanks to the digital age of social media and LinkedIn, having your phone ready is also beneficial. Even if you have your business card, the other person may not.
And that person you met could think you’re great, plan on getting in touch, but lose your business card. Or they could simply forget to email you back – life’s busy. This is where LinkedIn comes in handy.
If you have your business card and the other person doesn’t have theirs, reach into your pocket, grab that lifeline which is your phone, and say, “Oh, do you mind if I find you on LinkedIn?” Do it right then and there, and you don’t risk forgetting or misspelling their name.
6. Let your phone save you during nervous networking
I don’t know what people did without phones. Seriously, how did our kind survive?!
Joining conversations when you don’t know someone (or anyone!) is hard. And it’s even harder when you have that event speaker you really really want to thank, or ask your question, but they’re already speaking with someone and you're not quite sure when it’s your place to step in.
Hello my phone, my friend, and thank you for your existence!
Aside from the immediate ability to connect on LinkedIn, phones give you a place to direct your attention. Instead of standing a few steps away, hesitantly shifting your weight back and forth like you’re waiting to jump in for double dutch, grab your phone.
Scroll through the event hashtag on Twitter. Find cute puppies on Instagram. Or just pretend to. Whatever enables you to look busy but keep one eye open, ready for your opportunity to jump in.
This also works when you’re simply looking for someone to talk to. Have your phone in hand with an “I’m so busy reading my emails” look on your face. Do this near a spot for food and drinks, where other lost souls often wander trying to find a place to feel normal.
Sooner or later you will find yourself next to a friendly face ready to start conversation!
7. Smile and maintain a confident posture.
While you’re waiting your turn in double dutch, don’t let your nerves show through. Straighten your spine, squeeze those stomach muscles, and pull your shoulders down. Aside from the first impression you want to make with other professionals, you’re really helping yourself.
When we’re nervous we often hunch our shoulders and put our heads down without even realizing it. Even if your brain is thinking, “At this exact moment I am the most awkward person on earth,” take a confident stance. Your body will make your brain follow suit. And remember to smile during conversation.
They both work, I promise. It’s been proven that taking a powerful stance will make you feel more confident, and smiling lowers your heart rate and stress.
This will sound crazy, but if you’re super nervous and just don’t know how to shake it, go in the bathroom, close a stall door, and smile the biggest smile you can. Hold it for a while. Even if it’s fake, it helps.
And hey, if nothing else you can have a legitimate moment laughing at yourself standing in the bathroom stall, grinning at absolutely no one!
8. Utilize basic networking name tricks
When we’re nervous, we’re thinking about ourselves.
Hence, the focus is on ourselves, because all we can think is, “Am I being normal? Is it obvious how weird and out of place I feel? Oh my God, is my face SHOWING how out of place I feel? Smile! Wait, no, not a fake smile!” and so it continues.
Sometimes, when approaching a group of people, I have to remind myself, “I will meet you and remember your name.”
And, as this voice in your head takes over, guess what? You’ve missed the other person’s name. Whoops.
Sometimes attendees are wearing name tags and you can take a sneaky peak. (Although people notice your eyes going down. And, name tags are often at chest level. So, you know...proceed with caution.)
The good news is that everyone does this, especially at corporate events. Yup, the confident people too. Here are my four tricks for remembering names:
1. Use their name in conversation
As soon as you can, find a way to say it while you’re talking. “So, Ashley, what company do you work for?” It feels weird but it will definitely help you remember. Just don’t do it too many times, or it will actually get awkward for you both!
2. Be honest, and ask for their name again.
When we meet people, we are taking in everything about them. The moment you’re noticing “Wow that’s such a great shirt!” could be the exact moment they say they’re name. It’s okay to own up to it. Say, “I’m so sorry, I think I missed your name. What is it again?” There’s no shame; we all miss people’s names!
3. Think of someone in your own life who also that name.
I am horrible at remembering names. Everyone says it, but I’m worse than most. (I blame the six concussions I had as a cheerleader.) This is my own made-up tool, and the only thing that works for me. When I meet someone named Melissa, I visualize my friend Melissa.
The next time I see the person-whose-name-started-with-an-M-but-I-can’t-quite-remember, I picture my friend Melissa. And boom – I now know her name! You could use a friend, family member, or character from TV. My fingers are crossed it works for you too!
It’s so hard to do in those first moments, but make an effort to listen to that introduction. It isn’t easy if you’re nervous meeting people. It takes practice, but it is a skill you can learn.
9. Let it go
Awkward moments are bound to happen. But the good news? Most of the time it won’t be noticed or remembered.
It sounds a bit sad to say, but everyone is too busy thinking about themselves to notice that little moment where you felt weird. We’re all in the same place, trying to navigate the situation.
And even if they did notice, chances are they won’t remember it. They’re too busy thinking about themselves; either how they are coming across at the event, or what they have to do when it ends: What to make for dinner, theirdeadline, or what to buy for Grandma Edie’s birthday.
In addition, when you’re sincere and authentic, people don’t hold awkward moments against you. They get you’re a real person, and being a human being living life means there are moments of uncertainty.
The hardest part is letting it go. Other people don’t remember what happened, so you shouldn’t either. The next person you meet has no idea what happened five minutes ago.
Honestly it takes time, and it has taken me practice to learn that skill. But when you do, it makes such a difference. It's one of the tricks in learning how to be happy. Plus, you don’t need to carry any doubts with you into the next conversation!
One last networking story...
Now you know my tips and tricks. You may find your own as time goes on. But I promise you that you are not alone! And just to prove it, here is one last story of mine, which happened to inspire this article.
It was one of those nights I was feeling comfortable; I’d be seeing people I’d met loads of times before. I could walk in and smile, seeing smiles of recognition in return on the faces of those I knew.
Sadly, there’s knowing people and knowing people. I saw my regular point of contact, and we both smiled and said a genuine hello.
Then, my inner awkward beast took control. That weird moment of uncertainty: “Do we hug? Do we not hug?” Well, I didn’t really make up my mind either way. Which resulted in a mutual half hug, as our hips touched and inner arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders.
Oh, but my left arm! What to do with my left arm hanging there? Taking on a mind of its own, my arm crept up, crossing the front of my body, touching the other person’s far shoulder in what would have looked like the most awkward senior prom pose ever.
Yup, totally an awkward girl “wish I was an ostrich” moment.
But hey, on the bright side, I have a story to share, and you may be able to use it to help someone else!
You can read more about my event experiences in my Ultimate Guide to Event Marketing, including the benefits of event marketing, the top 10 types of event marketing, how to promote your event, and your ultimate event planning checklist.
Or, check out these articles to find more inspiration for work and life: