Have you ever walked excitedly into a trendy networking event, only to have your stomach drop when you realize you know no one? Do you start frantically looking for a way to sneak out? Do you consume one more drink than you probably should?
As humans it is natural to feel uncomfortable in situations where you are alone. Remind yourself, though, that the purpose of a networking event is indeed to make new professional connections.
In the next five minutes, I’ll outline simple steps regarding etiquette, conversation flow, and follow-ups to calm your nerves and help you get the most out of a solo networking event.
Feeling alone at a networking event should never be an excuse to forget necessary etiquette. Next time you walk into an event unaccompanied, take a deep breath and remind yourself of these non-negotiable rules:
- Everyone loves a smile and good handshake. Trust me, the evening will be much more awkward if you stand in a corner, avoid eye contact, and eke out a mediocre handshake when anyone takes the initiative to meet you. Force yourself to look pleasant and not out-of-place, and chances are you’ll actually start to feel more confident.
- It is never, ever ok to drink too much. Alcohol is a common staple at networking events, and despite the moniker “liquid courage,” it’s not what you should be turning to for bravery. You want to be memorable at events, but not for the wrong reasons.
- Remember the purpose of networking events. Although most people initially gravitate to familiar faces at networking events, remember that the purpose of these events is to make new connections. Every attendee made the conscious decision to attend the event, which is a likely indicator that they want to meet new people--like you.
- Hand business cards out like candy. Meeting someone new in your industry is futile unless you are able to nurture that connection. Nothing beats a good-old-fashioned business card to jump-start those ongoing professional relationships, even in an increasingly online world.
- Bring a small notebook and pen. Write down short notes about each person you meet--this will help you nurture your relationships down the road. People are always flattered when you can remember details about them!
Breaking into a conversation is probably the hardest part of working a networking event alone. When you already know attendees, the introductions flow a little more naturally. However, when no one knows you, the burden lies solely on your shoulders to insert yourself into a conversation. Here are a few tips I recommend:
- Politely, but confidently approach an individual or group and introduce yourself (with a smile and firm handshake… see above).
- Give enough of an intro that people know how to include you in their conversation, but end it at that--no one wants to hear you talk about yourself.
- It’s only awkward if you make it awkward. While it may feel extremely uncomfortable to approach a group of strangers alone, if you exude confidence I can promise they’ll respect you.
A first impression is lasting, but you can augment or destroy it during the bulk of your conversation. There are a few key points to remember here:
- LISTEN. It is such a simple word, but so hard to do. Always remember that people love to talk about themselves. They won’t remember you if you talk about yourself all night, but if you practice engaged listening and ask thoughtful follow-up questions, you’ll leave a great impression.
- Have your elevator pitch prepared. If others are polite and self-aware, at some point they’ll likely ask you more about yourself. Don’t fumble this opportunity with a valueless answer--they likely don’t care about your hometown or how many siblings you have. What they do want to know is how being connected with you could be useful for them. Have a short pitch prepared about what you do, why you do it, your goals, and why you’re at the event. You’ll get extra brownie points if you can make your response more relatable by using the information you’ve gathered while listening to them.
- Be extra mindful of your body language. At networking events, distractions abound. Thus it is important to use your body language to demonstrate you are listening and engaged… and not communicate the opposite. Your friends may know that you’re actually really good at listening while looking around a room, or when you glance at your watch it doesn’t mean you’re disengaged; but total strangers will interpret these behaviors as boredom.
- Know when, and how, to exit. Don’t leave a conversation prematurely--say, before everyone in the group has had a chance to chime in--but also don’t stick around too long. When you feel the conversation stalling, you can politely excuse yourself. You never want others to start wondering how to “get rid” of you. I like to say, “leave everyone wanting more, not less.” Here is an example of an exit line I’ve found to be very effective:
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Susan. I am really impressed with the work you’ve done at XYZ company. I don’t want to take more of your time because I know you’re here to meet lots of interesting individuals, but I am glad we had the chance to speak. Here is my business card, and do you mind if I connect with you on LinkedIn?”
After you’ve made it home from a solo networking event, you may be inclined to kick off your shoes, put on your favorite Netflix show, and maybe even sink up to your chin in a bubble bath. And you should--you deserve it! Don’t forget one of the most important aspects of a networking event, though--the follow-up. While these rules apply to all events you attend, you often have to make more of an effort to follow up with new connections when you’ve attended the event alone.
- Send the host or event organizer a short, thoughtful thank-you note. You’d be surprised how far such a simple gesture can go, and how few people make it. Word of such thoughtfulness travels quickly around the industry.
- Use the notes you took in your handy notebook to send a personalized follow-up to everyone you spoke to. Email paired with a LinkedIn connection is perfect. I recommend inserting one fact unique to them (so they know you aren’t mass-messaging) and one fact unique to you (so they can easily remember you), or reference your conversation (which accomplishes both).
- Schedule a networking lunch with at least one new contact. Chances are, you met someone at the event with whom a professional relationship would be beneficial. Perhaps it was an executive you could learn from, or it could have been someone more junior to whom you can offer advice. It may just be a peer for you to bounce ideas off of. I recommend setting up a casual one-on-one meeting to get to know this person better, and maximize the outcome of the event.
In conclusion, I would venture to guess 99% of humanity is uncomfortable walking into a crowded room knowing no one (if you’re part of the other 1%, well, hats off to you). By remaining extra conscious of best-in-class networking etiquette and going out of your way to be friendly and confident, though, you can navigate events with ease. So refresh those business cards, practice flashing your best smile, and I’ll see you at the next Will Reed networking event!