Hannah Young

Networking, while an important part of building relationships and progressing in your career path, can be emotionally taxing and even terrifying.  Walking into my first networking event was like taking those first few lonesome steps into the middle school dance before my friends showed up.  In other words: it was my worst nightmare.  But the truth is, no matter how stressful or anxiety-inducing these events can be, they are totally worth it in the long run.  Whether you’re going with coworkers or venturing alone, you’ll make connections that can help you in your future career.  Plus, merely showing your face for a couple of hours is an excellent way to make yourself known--and remembered!

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That said, there are definitely ways to make the networking process easier for yourself, especially if you’re going alone or with people you don’t know too well.  Included here are both macro-level tips about changing your mindset, and smaller-scale ‘hacks’ to employ when you’re feeling nervous.  Follow this advice, and you’ll find yourself becoming a pro at networking.

Before the event…

1. Set some goals.  Don’t fall into the trap of going in without a plan.  When I say ‘goals,’ I don’t mean that you should just think My goal is for this to go well! and leave it at that.  Go into the event with something specific in mind instead, like My goal is to talk to three people and remember their names and occupations.  Not only will this incentivize you to put yourself out there to accomplish your goal, but it’ll also make it easier to reflect afterwards, since you have a concrete way of measuring your success.  You’ll also know what to aim for next time if you fail.

2. Research the dress code.  Sometimes, an event will flat-out tell you what you should wear.  In that case, great!  But if the dress code is vague or MIA, do a little detective work.  Google the event (or whoever’s hosting it) and see if you can find photos of a similar, past event.  Note what people are wearing and use that as inspiration.  You can even look up the location on Facebook, Instagram, or Yelp to get a sense of the venue’s vibe.  This way, you’ll know what kind of thing you should wear, giving you one fewer thing to worry about.  And most importantly, even though more formal events will require heels or flats, don’t forget to pick a pair of shoes you can comfortably stand in!

3. Have a script.  Of course, you want to come off as genuine as possible, but it’s important to figure out how you’re going to describe yourself to others.  You don’t want to be stumped when someone asks, ‘Tell me about yourself!’ or ‘What do you do?’ or ‘What are you interested in?’ or ‘What are your skills?’.  Figure out a few easy-to-remember phrases, like 'I’m a ____ major, and I’m really interested in finance because _____.'  If you’re representing your company or school, be able to rattle off a one-minute elevator pitch summing up what you do there.  You can practice this in front of friends, family, or a mirror to make sure what you’re saying is succinct, yet personable.  This way, you’ll be less nervous once you’re there, since you now have a foolproof way to begin and continue any conversation.  

At the event…

1. Grab a drink.  I wouldn’t recommend drinking alcohol at a networking event, so make a beeline for the bar and grab a sparkling water instead.  It’s a little fancier than still water, and will help you drink it slower so you don’t end up downing the whole thing and having to head to the bathroom immediately.  Getting a drink will ensure that you have something to do when you arrive, don’t fidget too much with your hands, and can pause to take a sip if a conversation comes to a lull, giving you a little time to think of the next thing to say.  But the major key here is to hold the drink in your left hand--this way, you always have your right hand open to shake hands with new people.  It’s always a little awkward to have to shift all your stuff around while someone is waiting with their right hand outstretched, so stop that problem before it even starts.

2. Don’t be afraid to eat, but keep it simple.  A lot of fancy networking events will have catered food, especially hors d'oeuvres coming around on plates.  If you like what’s being passed around, feel free to take one, but make sure you are able to eat it in one bite and won’t need a plate for it.  You definitely don’t want to occupy your right hand, and the absolute last thing you want is to spill a messy, multiple-bites-needed snack on yourself.  And, bonus: you can talk about how delicious the food is with whoever you’re with, and maybe even bond over a shared affinity for pigs in a blanket.

3. Don’t sit down!  This isn’t a be-all-and-end-all tip; if everyone’s sitting down, or if you’re tired or injured, go for it!  But generally, if you sit down, you’re stuck there, no matter how boring or awkward the conversation you’re having is.  By standing up, you look friendlier and more outgoing, and you can move from group to group seamlessly without having to make it obvious that you’re leaving each one.  You won’t be succumbing to an obvious power dynamic if the person you’re trying to impress is standing--this will give you extra confidence!  Standing will encourage you to keep moving and avoid standing by the side of the room, feeling like a wallflower.  Also, you can easily head to the bathroom or grab more snacks if you need a quick escape route.

4. Remember that people love to talk about themselves.  When in doubt, or if things get awkward, ask questions.  Find out what someone does for a living.  Ask how they’re connected to the foundation or company that’s hosting the event (make sure you do your research on the employers and companies that will be there so you can prepare specific questions for them, too!).  Inquire about whatever they have on their plate.  If it seems appropriate, compliment their outfit. After all, everyone is there to meet new people and make useful connections--everyone has something to say.  And make sure you practice active listening when they answer!

No matter how stressful or anxiety-inducing these events can be, they're worth it in the long term.

After the event…

1. Connect online.  Remember the names of people you had good conversations with, and send them requests, maybe even with personal notes attached, on LinkedIn.  Also, send a thank-you email to the hosts (only if you knew them previously) or to whoever invited you detailing how much fun you had and how grateful you are that you were invited.  Being friendly and thankful is a sure-fire way to be invited to more events and for your higher-ups to remember and like you.

2. Reflect and plan for the future.  Think back to the goals you set before the event, and see if you measured up.  If you didn’t fulfill every goal, that’s okay!  That’s something to work on for next time.  Give yourself some constructive criticism and move forward.  With a little more practice, you’ll become a natural and slowly be able to set higher networking goals for yourself.  

I’ve used these tips at networking events and have found them to be incredibly helpful.  Sure, it might be a little awkward at first, just like that middle school dance.  But I don’t look back on my time at school and think about how scary that one night of the year was.  Your career is the exact same way--in ten years, you won’t remember how much you might have felt like a fish out of water at a certain event.  Rather, you’ll be glad you put in the effort and made all of those new connections!

 

Hannah is a student studying sociology at Hamilton College.  You can usually find her powerlifting at the gym, enjoying picnics in Central Park with her friends, or doing an excessive amount of online shopping.

 

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