Does the prospect of working a room make you hope that there will be wine? Even the smoothest movers and hand-shakers didn’t necessarily start out that way. When Jumoke Dada, CEO of Signature Red and an entrepreneur in Philadelphia who has 3,000 names in her database, attended her first networking event for young professionals, she was so overwhelmed she went to the ladies’ room to give herself a pep talk. “I know this sounds weird, but I started to dance to get myself pumped,” she says.
Ready, Set, Go Mingle!
In the restroom, Dada gave herself a goal: “I told myself that I was going to approach 10 people and get 10 cards,” she says. At first she targeted individuals who were standing off by themselves, but by the end of the night, she had walked up to almost every group, big and small, and exceeded her goal by 30 people. Here, from Dada and other professionals who will be speaking at this year’s Conference, are more suggestions on how to become a natural at networking:
Practice, practice, practice. “Commit to attending at least one event a month,” says Jen Smith, a social media and marketing strategy consultant at JenSmithSocial.com. She also recommends joining “a networking group that does speed networking where you have to say who you are, what you do, and what you need in your business. The practice will help you get your elevator speech down and get you comfortable talking to people you don’t know.” Her favorite icebreaker: “Complimenting women on their shoes and jewelry,” Smith says. “It’s sincere—because I happen to LOVE shoes and jewelry—and it’s something that just about any woman can relate to. And if you make someone feel special they are more likely to remember you.”
Prepare your self-introduction and other remarks. “Come up with a few talking points that you’re comfortable saying before you need them, so that you learn to discuss parts of you, your story, career or passions with ease,” recommends Lauren Maillian Bias, founder and CEO of LMB Group, a marketing company. “That way you can concentrate on engaging in the moment instead of structuring your thoughts under the pressure of anxiety.” Her favorite icebreaker: “I don’t really believe in breaking the ice per se,” she says. “If you are charismatic and want to engage in intelligent conversation but get stonewalled, I would circulate the room for someone who’s receptive and interested in engaging. My rule of thumb is if it takes too much effort to get the conversation going then it’s not worth having.”
Realize that your personality is well suited for this. “Networking is about asking questions and listening, and I find that those who are shy are actually often better at making those authentic connections than those of us who are type A,” says Carla Piñeyro Sublett, Dell’s executive director of marketing for Latin America. If you’re intimidated by hierarchy or position, Piñeyro Sublett adds, “remember that there will be no title on our tombstones. In the end, we are all people who start and end in the same way.” Her favorite icebreaker: “Usually laughter. I really have an appreciation for a good sense of humor. Also, a natural curiosity about others helps. People are always happy to talk about their interests, where they grew up and their family. And if you ask about the risks and challenges they are trying to solve in their work, there is often an opportunity to offer help, which brings an even stronger value to the connection.”
Start within your comfort zone. “Seek out groups of people who share your personal interests, such as on Meetup.com,” says Karen Huller, founder of Epic Careering and JoMo Rising. “Build your confidence little by little by engaging in groups of people with whom you will develop easy rapport.” As you become more self-assured, she says to “start leveraging those engagements into opportunities to share professional goals, find out what other people are up to, and how you can assist and support them.” Her favorite icebreaker: “If it comes easy, I like to give a genuine compliment,” Huller says. “Rather than force it though, sometimes I will ask if they are meeting the kinds of people they were hoping to, then segue into finding out who that is and aim to make a connection for them.”
Know that people want to meet you. “To anyone nervous at a networking event like I once was,” Dada says, “remember that you are in a room with like-minded individuals who are there to meet others. So aim for your goals and don’t be afraid to engage, because your next encounter could be the start of something awesome.” Her favorite icebreaker: “I tend to walk up to people, introduce myself, then ask how they heard about the event and why are they there,” Dada says. “I like to find out what people need or hope to accomplish—I genuinely ask—and try to introduce them to other people who could help.”