It Came from Ballroom A

Networking might feel uncomfortable but find comfort in being yourself and true connection will follow

This is not your typical networking article. This article won’t give you “Four Ways to Cultivate Synergy!” nor will it provide “Ten Success-Boosting Motivation Tips from Millionaire Entrepreneurs!” However, if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in luck because those are real article titles.

This article is for the name-tag averse, the person wondering if they remembered to peel the size sticker off the blazer they just bought. This article is for the person caught off guard by an impending handshake, struggling to balance their sad little plate of cheese cubes on top of a sweating plastic cup swaddled in a soaked cocktail napkin. This article is for us: the people who dread networking. Let’s all take these next 36 sentences to find solace in our unity and wallow in the soul-crushing vacuity that is networking, then we can go back to pretending we’re so totally jazzed our boss has sent us to attend an event in Ballroom A of the Hilton Garden Inn at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday.

This article is for the name-tag averse, the person wondering if they remembered to peel the size sticker off the blazer they just bought.

We know that networking makes the world go ‘round. It’s not a myth that if you want to build connections and create a community around your business, it really is about relationships. Smart people tell you these things all the time! So why do we dislike networking so much? To start with the obvious, trying to start conversations with random business-casual-bedecked strangers is awkward no matter what. What I think makes it so painful is this: Everybody in the room wants something, but we’re all bound by social convention to act as if we’re only there to build those relationships everyone is talking about. It’s the cognitive dissonance of trying to have a normal, human conversation all the while knowing that your actual secret mission is to worm your way closer to getting the thing you want. It would be whole lot less awkward — and more transparent — if people at these events were to walk around with small signs hanging around their neck that list their name, company, and the things they want. That way Jimmy who wants employees, money, and a new office space can easily connect with Jackie who wants a new job, investment opportunities, and an office tenant. With the nuts and bolts of cold, hard commerce out there in the open, you can get things done and maybe even find your way into some naturally friendly chitchat.

It can be done. If you’re looking for networking tips from people who thrive on the experience, here are some pointers from Entrepreneur magazine and Monster:

  • Listen well and ask lots of questions. Networking is so much less stressful when you can get other people to do the talking, and most people relish the opportunity to talk about themselves. The more information you can gather now will make it easier to start conversations in the future.
  • Tell a story. When it’s time to share information about yourself, resist the temptation to rattle off your name, industry, and title. Tell people a story about who you are and what you do. Make it personal and engaging and people will be interested.
  • Be sincere, authentic, and positive. Even if you dislike networking, cultivating a positive attitude will help keep things in perspective. Don’t take things too seriously and you’ll feel yourself start to relax. Remember to bring your sincere and authentic self when interacting with others. It will help those all-important connections stick.
  • Always follow up. Networking doesn’t stop after you’ve exited Ballroom A. Following up after the fact is just as important. Whether it’s by phone, text, or email, make sure you send a quick message letting people know how much you enjoyed meeting them. Extra points if you can work in a fact or a personal detail from your conversation.

Still unsure and want to feel a little better about being an awkward networker? Here’s a true story from me to you: A client of mine was holding a grand opening of their high-end commercial interior design showroom. Sent to represent the company and “build affinity,” I ended up chatting with a furniture supplier. It was going well! Probably because she thought I was in the market for office furniture (see above: Everybody in the room wants something). As we paused in front of a brightly spotlighted display of office chairs, she told me her company was the sole licensed distributer of a certain designer in the Northeast. She then raised her hand up to her face looking for all the world like the universal invitation for a high five. Not wanting to leave her hanging, I enthusiastically slapped her hand. I’m also pretty sure I said, “good job!” One look at her confused face and I realized the spotlight from the display has been in her face and the chill “up top!” gesture was just an attempt to shade her eyes.

The motivational takeaway of this is that despite wanting very much to throw all my business cards up in the air as a diversion and scuttle under said designer chair, I finished out the event and lived to network another day. Plus, I came away with a story to add to my “amusingly humiliating anecdotes portfolio,” and I guarantee that erstwhile high-five recipient won’t forget me anytime soon either. Hey, maybe I’m a better networker than I thought.