Hope for the Hopeless at Networking Events and Parties

Larry Cornett, Ph.D.

Your network should have people who can help you land deals, get jobs, pick up new clients, or help you learn new in-demand skills. In other words, you want to network vertically, not horizontally.” — Zak Slayback

It's that time of year when companies, communities, and other organizations are throwing their holiday parties. Until recently, these events used to be opportunities for some professional networking. Now, they are mostly being hosted online, but that doesn't mean that they still can't be a useful opportunity for you to make some connections.

You may be one of those people who absolutely love typical networking events. Perhaps you’re an extrovert, and it’s easy for you to have a circle of people gather around you to hear your interesting stories.

If so, I envy you. I am not one of those people.

However, if you’re like me and a bit more introverted, then you know the pain of trying to make small talk at events and parties — even when it's through Zoom. But, building a powerful network is a valuable side effect of other useful events like workshops, retreats, conferences, and panels.

Networking has been most helpful for my career and business when it happens that way. But, when networking is the primary focus of the event (e.g., meet-ups, business card exchanges, business cocktail parties), it can be stressful and frustrating.

So, my first piece of advice for those of you who cringe at the thought of a networking event is to stop being part of the general audience. Instead, pursue being on panels, speaking at conferences, teaching and attending workshops, and other places where you get a chance to take the spotlight naturally.

My experience at Design Leadership 2019 in Melbourne, Australia, was just such an event. I was one of the speakers, and it made the networking aspect so much easier for me.

When we had breaks, lunch, and an afterparty, I made my usual retreat into a quiet corner of the room with my drink in hand. People sought me out and came up to me to talk because they had watched me give my presentation on stage.

Therefore, we avoided the usual awkward small talk.

They wanted to discuss what I had shared, ask me more questions, and get my advice. It felt natural, and it led to me connecting with these people and growing my network.

However, until you line up more speaking opportunities for yourself, you will probably need to deal with the usual networking events and parties. So, how do you cope? How do you get more value out of them?

First, seek out the other introverts

This is the most useful advice I’ve received. We naturally tend to gravitate to the active circles of conversations.

You know the ones. There’s an extrovert in the middle telling some great story, and everyone else is listening, nodding, and laughing. You’ll never get a word in edgewise if you join those circles.

There are other people at these networking events and parties who are feeling shy and awkward too. Seek out the people who are sitting or standing alone.

Engage them in conversation and find something more meaningful to discuss than the usual small talk. I’ve always found it easier to have a deeper conversation with one to two people in a small group than trying to shout to be heard in a large group.

But what do you talk about? How do you break the ice?

That’s still a real problem for many of us. That’s where the art of smart questions comes in.

Second, ask good questions

The key to networking and most conversations is to listen more than you talk. One excellent way to do that is to ask the other person some interesting questions that invite a more meaningful discussion.

Most people like it when someone shows a real interest and wants to hear more about them. Just make sure you don’t ask questions that can end with a simple yes or no answer (e.g., “Is this your first time here?”).

Here are some sample questions that you can try the next time you need to start a conversation. Some are more general, some are event specific, and others fit different types of occasions.

More general questions

  • What’s a good book you’ve read this year?
  • What’s a fun movie you’ve seen this year?
  • Did you do anything interesting this past weekend?
  • What’s your favorite way to spend the weekend?
  • What have you been working on lately?

Relevant for an event you’re attending together

  • What was the highlight of the event for you today?
  • What has been your favorite talk or session so far?
  • How long have you been a part of this organization?
  • What advice would you give someone starting in this field?

Relevant for a party

  • How do you know the host?
  • What drink are you having?
  • What food would you recommend here?
  • What’s the best party you’ve ever been to?

Deeper conversations

  • What is your idea of a dream job?
  • What is your dream vacation?
  • What is the next big adventure you want to pursue?
  • Who is your favorite author and why?

You get the idea. The general approach is to ask more meaningful questions to get the conversation started and perhaps ask a few follow-up questions to keep the ball rolling. Then, the conversation will more naturally flow from there.

Finally, connect and follow up

This is where most people drop the ball. They meet people and maybe even have a great conversation, but they never take the next step.

The relationship starts and ends at the event. That’s a real loss when you meet someone interesting who would be great to have in your network.

One of the best ways to strengthen your network is to provide value and help others — selflessly. When you meet someone interesting, there is probably some way to follow up with them to continue the discussion and provide value.

  • Is there someone you could introduce them to (e.g., if they are seeking a new job)?
  • Is there a great article that you could send them which might be relevant for something you discussed?
  • Is there some other interesting event that you might want to invite them to?

Keep the conversation going. Keep this new relationship alive.

Before you leave the event, connect with this person via LinkedIn or social media. Share email addresses or phone numbers.

Obviously, don’t force this if it doesn’t seem like they are comfortable with it. But, if you’ve been having a nice discussion with people, they will naturally feel open to connecting with you.

At the recent conference I mentioned, I shared my Twitter handle with everyone to make it easy for people to follow me and connect later. I connected via LinkedIn with several people. We sometimes used the app to do it right on the spot so that we wouldn’t forget.

I even exchanged a few old fashioned business cards. Crazy, I know!

The point is, networks are incredibly valuable if you take the time to curate them well and keep the relationships alive. Connect with them, follow up later, and help when you can.

In summary, I do find it more effective to flip this all around and seek out events where you can speak and be in the spotlight. It makes the side effect of networking so much easier later.

However, if you are going to engage in traditional networking, it doesn’t have to be stressful. Seek out a few people and have meaningful conversations vs. circling like a moth around the lightbulbs of a few extroverts.

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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach, career advisor, and business advisor at Invincible Career® in Northern California. He spent more than two decades in the tech industry launching new businesses, products, and services. He was a Product and Design executive at several tech companies in Silicon Valley; including his own startup, a product strategy and design consultancy, Apple Computer, Yahoo, eBay, and IBM.

Palo Alto, CA

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