Here’s the optimistic picture most people create about networking: You’re at a “networking event” in your new favorite outfit, feeling confident, looking great. Your most polished self is ready to dazzle them with your obvious charm, intelligence and sparkling white teeth. People hang on your every word and greedily collect your cards. They have a caseload full of people to send you on Monday. They’re so glad they met you.
Here’s the pessimistic picture: You’re at a “networking event.” It feels like the 8th grade dance. The people who know each other are clustered to your left and you’re awkwardly shoveling hummus into your mouth from the refreshment table. Arg, now it’s on your shirt. Your sweaty armpits are in a race to see which one can soak your new “professional” shirt to the hem. Someone approaches you and you both start talking at once, play that awful “you talk” game until someone finally gets a full introduction out. You feel like you’re hocking your services to people who have no use for them. You find a fake excuse to exit before the event is over.
Here’s the truth: If you’re an introvert, there’s no need to go to those things. Seriously, let yourself off the hook. Networking events aren’t that valuable and your energy is. Yes, you need to network, but not like that. Not unless there’s something about it you’re super-excited about.
If you’re an extravert, sure, attend. But focus your energy on a few strategically chosen people. Approach them with a line ready in your head (nothing pick-up-line-esque, something natural-esque). Maybe “I saw your ad in the paper. I’d love to hear more about your business.” Or, “We have a friend in common. How do you know Dani?” Leave out the “I think…”; it makes you look insecure. If you know they know Dani or their name tag says Jane Doe and the ad you saw was for Jane Doe, don’t hedge.
If you’re going in cold, don’t know a soul, walk up to the first kind-looking person you see and say “Hi, I’m Your Name, I don’t know anyone here. Can you give me the lay of the land?” This will likely start up a conversation and that leads to “what do you do?” since, y’know, it’s a networking event. If the person is a jerk, his/her life must suck. It’s a networking event & you just took the pressure off by approaching him/her. Business probably isn’t going to go so well for that person. Quick, get away from that sinking ship!
In the unlikely event that the second person you approach sucks too, leave. Really. You’re not there to torture yourself and apparently you didn’t realize you’d been invited to a networking event for assholes. What’s likely to happen is that everyone will be open and nice. Maybe not the best fit as a referral source, but not unpleasant either. You may luck out & meet a “connector.” That’s like striking gold.
Another quick note about networking events: they come in all different packages. If it’s Young Professionals of Your City, that could be great. But finding those people that will be grateful to refer to you is easiest. Work with eating disorders? Go to an Eating Disorder Treatment networking event. Love working with folks in transition- go to events with lots of realtors and real estate attorneys. Therapy with adolescents- Is there an open educator happy hour around? Your time is valuable. Be as strategic as possible.
How have you survived networking events? Let me know in the comments.
Allison Puryear is an LCSW with a nearly diagnosable obsession with business development. She has started practices in three different states and wants you to know that building a private practice is shockingly doable when you have a plan and support. After retiring her individual consultation services, she opened the Abundance Party, where you can get practice-building help for the cost of a copay. You can download a free private practice checklist to make sure you have your ducks in a row, get weekly private practice tips, listen to the podcast, hop into the free Facebook Group. Allison is all about helping you gain the confidence and tools you need to succeed.