I’m Done Holding Up Walls

For a while now I’ve been meaning to attend a networking event, to make new contacts and meet people who will help grow my freelance business (either as clients or just as contacts). It’s been on and off my goals page ever since I put the page up–but I’ve been making excuses.

I didn’t want to attend a networking event until I had business cards. I didn’t want to have business cards printed until I knew what I was going to name my company. Basically, I was standing in my own way.

See, I was totally that kid in elementary school who sat at the loser table at lunch. I was the one who always stood out, even when I was trying to fit in. In many ways I’ve overcome this–I’ve decided that there are good ways to stand out and bad, and I’ve decided to set myself apart intentionally by aiming for higher goals and pushing myself harder.

But that kid that got kicked out of class for reading under her desk when she was bored with the math lesson, that kid is still in me in some ways (and yes, that did happen). I still don’t feel like I fit in. I imagine that when I talk people are mocking me in their heads; that no one takes me seriously. So I tend to have trouble at networking events, because I generally imagine that when I try to join a conversation or when I introduce myself to someone, they are just wishing I’d leave them alone.

But last night, for what may be one of the first times ever, I did it anyway. Here’s how:

Tip #1: Find the most awkward looking person in the room. Someone who is holding up a wall. Who clearly doesn’t have anyone to talk to. Go introduce yourself to that person. Chances are they feel just as freaked out by the event as you do, and will welcome the chance to have a real conversation.

When I walked up to the woman who was standing all by herself last night, my hands were shaking. So I put them behind my back. I introduced myself and asked her what brought her to the event. Just like that we had something to talk about. When I started to run out of things to say and the conversation seemed to be lulling, I told her it was great to meet her, shook her hand and walked away.

Tip #2: Offer to help someone; either someone organizing the event or another attendee. If you can prearrange to help set up chairs or work the event in some way, it gives you a great excuse to talk to people and puts you in a situation where people are likely to talk to you.

This is a tip I’ve used before–typically, when I’m attending a conference, I attend for free by volunteering to help. While it saves my wallet, it also helps me meet people and make connections.

Last night, however, I hadn’t volunteered to set up. But opportunity presented itself in the shape of a great Dane. Since it’s a pet business event, this woman had brought her dog with her–I walked over and asked if I could pet it. When the woman asked where she could find a glass of wine, I volunteered to grab it for her so she didn’t have to lug the dog across the room.

And just like that, I’d made my second connection. If you can’t find someone who needs help, be the one that needs help instead. Ask someone where to find something, or what time something is supposed to start. Those types of things are easy ways to start up a conversation–or at least make sure you don’t go home without having spoken to anyone.

Tip #3: Ask someone who is standing on the fringe of a group if you’ve met them before. Pretend they look familiar. When they say no (after all, you HAVEN’T met them before), introduce yourself and ask them what they do just to “make sure” you haven’t met somewhere … if by some crazy chance they say yes (maybe they’re pretending too), say “I’m sorry, but I can’t remember you’re name. What was it again?”

I totally pulled this off last night. There was a gentleman there–I had met other people from his company (his name tag said what company he worked for) and asked him if we’d met. I then got him to introduce me to the whole circle of people he was standing on the fringe of, all of whom he knew. While my conversation with him didn’t last long, I managed to strike up a conversation with another member of the group that lasted for quite some time.

BONUS TIPS: So when I mentioned on twitter that I was working on this topic, Keith Daw, President and Director of Media Relations for Diamond Three mentioned that this was a topic he knew quite a bit about. He provided these next two tips:

Keith says:

Bring a buddy – Some people don’t do well talking about themselves or what they do, let alone in a room full of strangers. So, bring a trusted colleague to bolster your confidence and take turns introducing one another. It’ll be easier for both of you to approach strangers and provides instant credibility. It’s easier for us to brag on a colleague, or vice versa, than it is for us to talk about ourselves. So, bring one!”

Set meetings – You’re not at the event to close the deal, merely to pique their curiosity. Establish whether the person is someone that fits your target list, then exchange business cards and set a time to speak further via phone or in person, if possible.

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