For a variety of reasons, I recently decided to fly across the country for a day to attend a startup conference. There were only a handful of people I knew personally who would be in attendance. These included the conference organizers (who, with any luck I'd get my 30 seconds of thanks for the invite with before I dashed back to the airport for the red-eye back home) and a startup founder I met over a year ago at an event for PlumAlley.co in New York City.
Bold and fearless networking? Not so fast. Everyone has networking anxieties--including me. If someone says they don't, I'd say they are not telling the whole truth - as we all think about wonder about the other attendees, whether an event will meet our expectations, what to say or if we'll spill a drink or if we'll be introduced to someone mid-bite into an hors d'oeuvre. The networking fear brain chatter is simply louder and scarier for many people. What if I don't know anyone, how will I join a conversation? Will the conversation focus on sports or politics or the weather? What if I get stuck in the corner with a complete bore all evening? And that brain chatter paralyzes those people from engaging in conversation (or even attending events, including the right events) is often endless (and as professional success depends on getting out and meeting people).
Instead of skipping the event or constantly sticking your nose in your smartphone when someone tries to make eye-contact with you, a few tips to address common networking fears.
1. Fear of nothing to say? Just Listen. You can participate in cocktail banter by actively listening and chiming in with a few questions.
2. Fear based on lack of knowledge? Go to tip #1. Too many times we exclude ourselves from a conversation with the "I don't know anything about [insert sport here]" excuse. Just listen. When someone is passionate about a topic, they love nothing more than an interested listener.
3. Fear based on lack of interest in the discussion topic? Go to tip #1 and fake it. Being at the event and meeting people is more important than your interest (or lack thereof) in the topic of discussion. Watch your facial expressions however... replace the bored or bitchy-resting face with a friendly poker face.
4. Fear of not fitting in? Become a student of the networking organization's social culture. Find out who attends these events, as well as what the protocol is for arrival (and departure) and yes, attire. If you can't get this information before an event, use your first foray as a "look and listen" opportunity as you watch for cues and clues to the networking culture during the event. The event I attended was an invite-only crowd of 450 people connected with early-stage venture-backed startups. "How do you know [insert name of venture capitalist here]?" was a common and easy conversation starter.
5. Fear of standing alone? Take control by introduce yourself first--it is far less awkward than being an after-thought "oh, by the way, my name is______" person. And wear your name tag on your right shoulder (so when you shake hands, your name is clearly visible). If the networking occurs at a seated event, I make it a habit to introduce myself to everyone at the table by getting up and shaking their hand (or standing by my chair if I'm the first to arrive at the table).
6. Fear of being stuck in one conversation? Politely exit it. Ok, you can make an excuse about the time or the nanny or train schedule or wanting another drink but honestly, looking for an excuse can cause more anxiety than a simple "It's been nice speaking with you".
7. Fear that you suck at networking? Be patient. Stop worrying that all eyes are on you (they could be, however, if you're in a room where everyone is scared, trying to overcome their own networking anxieties and you're viewed as the safe person to initiate a conversation with).
8. Fear of not knowing anyone? Best way to get to know anyone in an organization or club is to volunteer to help with an event. You'll know who everyone is in short order if you're the person handing out the name tags.
As for the fear of being introduced when you're mid-bite? My guidance is simple. Avoid any hors d'oeuvre which is served on a stick or is still attached to a bone.