How to handle the awkwardness of networking (and maybe even dig it!)

The term “networking” gets a bad rap. People think of it as an awkward social obligation, a necessary evil of the working world, and the inverse of naturally making friends. And the truth is, it can feel that way, especially if you find yourself at a networking event, trying to network. But networking is a part of life, even when you don’t realize it. It’s just an opportunity to connect with people on similar career paths, and maybe make a new friend in the process. If nothing else, networking exposes you to new connections and opportunities you might not otherwise know about if you’re doing most of your socializing from your laptop. Meeting new people in similar fields can really open up possibilities in your career, and provide a path to where you want to go. But if the idea of face-to-face networking makes you cringe, there are ways to ease the anxiety and make the whole process feel a bit more natural. Here’s where to start:

1. Have a networking buddy.

I have a friend who gets a bit shy in social situations. He hates—no, loathes—approaching people at networking events. “I don’t know anyone here,” he’ll say. “No one knows anyone here,” I’ll say back. So, I created a game where one of us has to choose the strangers to talk to, and the other person has to initiate the conversation. Similar to dating, when approaching someone, it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s just making an introduction that is key. And, if you are going to an event solo, ask someone you meet to be your networking buddy. To make things easier, this can be the first person you see when you walk into the room. Believe me, they’ll appreciate it, too.

2. Try not to ask what someone does for work.

I know that this is often the opening line people say to each other. After all, it’s the easiest one. In L.A., where I live, so many people ask this one sentence, then walk away if they don’t like the answer or if they don’t immediately think you can help them. (Don’t be that person!) However, networking isn’t just about finding job leads or work contacts, it’s about foraging friendships and getting to know people as people, not simply as their job titles. So, I try to ask other questions first: “How did you hear about this organization?”; “Where did you grow up?”; “What’s your favorite thing about living in L.A.?”; and “What kind of pets do you have?” I save the “What do you do?” for later, once I see if I have a rapport with the person and even want to network or be friends with them, post-event.

3. Have networking goals—and a concise one-liner about what you do and your best assets.

When work does come up, be your best cheerleader. If you’re looking for a job, you want to let someone know how you can (will!) add value to their lives. Think about it this way—if an HR person were introducing you, what would they say about yourself in one clear sentence? Also, know your purpose of why you are at the event. To find work? To meet like-minded people? To make new friends? Like anything in life, you should have a goal in mind. If you don’t, have no fear—it’s fine to go out just for fun, too. But the more focused your networking is, the more focused your questions will be when you’re talking to people and the better results you’ll get.

4. Talk to a minimum of five people (or two, or ten).

When you arrive, you and your buddy should have another goal in mind, also: to meet at least five new people (or two, or ten). That way, neither of you can bail beforehand or leave the other one behind, and you’re bound to connect with at least one of those people. Also, you may be the kind of person who wants to meet everyone in the room—I used to be like this—like speed dating (without the score cards at the end). However, you don’t want to come off as aloof if you only spend a few minutes with each person, so do give each one your best shot before making a polite exit. And, this is where your buddy comes in handy again, to get you moving to another conversation.

5. Maintain eye contact.

Especially in this cell phone-obsessed era, make sure your eyes are on the person you’re talking to, not your phone. There’s nothing worse than talking to someone, and you think they’re paying attention, but they’re really reading and smiling at Facebook statuses or texts. A few months ago, I was at a birthday party where they had a “Cell Phone Valet,” a big box wrapped up like a pretty present. That’s right, you had to leave your phone behind when you arrived. And guess what? We all lived! Point being, stay in the moment. Your phone will be there for you later when you leave.

6. Don’t badmouth anyone.

L.A. is a huge city of almost four million people, yet so small—everyone knows everyone (so much so that I bump into a different person every day, whether I’m at Trader Joe’s or the bookstore). So, even if you meet someone and they start ranting about their terror of a boss, who you just happen to know, resist agreeing with them. Or perhaps you work for the awful boss and want to vent. Don’t. You don’t know who they know and it’s not worth the risk.

7. Go network even if you’re tired (or have 101 excuses not to)!

How many nights are you supposed to go to a social event (networking or not) and then you bail because you’re tired, fear you won’t know anyone, or insert-any-other-excuse-here? The nights I’ve been the most exhausted are the nights I’ve met people whom I’m still in touch with today. Case in point: Friday Night Drinks, a monthly networking event for writers in L.A. This particular Friday, I’m not in a mingling mood and am leaving town in a few days for a job. I should be home packing, I think, but my friend reminds me of the game I invented and picks a group of people for us to talk to. It’s my turn to initiate the conversation. I blurt out, “I’m moving to New York for work on Sunday. Do any of you know someone subletting a room?” It turns out that the female in the group has a three-bedroom place in the West Village and one of the rooms is available. I rent it out for nearly a year while I live in New York. Meanwhile, she becomes one of my best friends and lives less than a mile from me in L.A.—and it’s now six years later.

8. Don’t drink too much (if anything at all).

I know they say alcohol is a social lubricant, but I personally get more energy from a Coke. Keep in mind that you don’t want to be remembered for the wrong reasons or as the one who couldn’t hold their liquor. If you know you can’t drink more than two glasses of wine without getting loopy, stop at one. Similar to your networking goals, limit how much you’ll drink.

9. Network at work.

You may not realize it, but every time you’re talking to co-workers and cube acquaintances in the break room or hallway, you’re actually networking, too. After enough of these accidental run-ins, you should suggest meeting for coffee or lunch sometime. If the person is a higher level than you, you could treat the coffee or lunch as an informational interview. It never hurts to get to know your fellow workers more personally, turn them into friends and have some additional allies on your side for a to-be-determined stormy work day.

10. Follow up the next day.

These days, there is no excuse not to follow up the morning after networking, especially with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. You want to do this and: tell the person how great it was to meet them; cite something you talked about; and make plans (a firm date and time). I’m sure we can all think of times we met someone we really connected with—“She’s going to be my new best friend!”—and then we forget her Twitter handle or last name and start Facebook-stalking, only to get distracted by actual work, which leads to getting distracted by real life, which leads to never emailing your new friend. So don’t wait. Follow up!

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