If attending the inevitable networking events at Diggers & Dealers is part of your mandate but the thought of striking up conversations with strangers sends shivers up your spine, you’re not alone. SIMON SHEPHERDSON shares some lessons learned on overcoming the fear and making the most of it.

So you’re headed to Diggers & Dealers with a pocket full of business cards, tickets to all the key networking functions and KPIs based on lots of new introductions.

And maybe a sense of dread at the prospect of fronting up to a room full of people you don’t know.

Fear not, fellow nervous networkers. You are not alone.

Some people seem quite comfortable walking into a party and striking up casual conversations with anyone and everyone. But lots don’t and it’s only thanks to the free-flowing booze and others making the first move that many of us last more than an uncomfortable first half hour.

However, a little persistence has shown there can be value in attending networking events and having a few conversations. It may not lead to a bell-ringing sales moment, but there’s a good chance you could meet someone who knows someone who’ll want something someday. Or it may just be a good way to find a few likeminded people who attend similar events so next time round you could see a familiar face or two.

Networking is a strange kind of interaction. It’s not quite business and not quite casual. And that makes it a hard one for many people to navigate. But the one thing to remember is that there are others in the room who’ll be feeling a similar sense of discomfort.

Here’s a few practical tips and tricks to help you overcome the jitters and make the most of those inevitable events.

  1. Walk: Whenever possible, take time to walk to an event. It provides a chance to mentally prepare by reminding yourself that everyone is in the same situation, that they all want to talk too and that the chances of being fobbed off when striking up a conversation are pretty slim.
  2. Have a good elevator pitch: Business networking events are about developing business, so it helps if you know yours. You should have a clear, concise answer ready for the inevitable question of “What do you do?” Remember also that people’s attention spans are shrinking, so while the rule of thumb used to be 30 seconds, if you can get the initial message across in 15 it will have a better chance of sticking. It’s also worth having a few slightly revised versions of the official corporate line so that you aren’t spouting off the same scripted answer every time you talk to someone new.
  3. Be armed with questions and use them: The greatest conversationalists listen rather than talk. They ask open-ended questions to get the other parties talking – and the topic that most people know best is themselves. Have a few leading questions up your sleeve: What do you do? How long have you been there? What does your specific role entail? Who are your typical clients? Also don’t be scared to dig a little deeper and get more personal – find out where people are from, about their hobbies and interests, if they have kids or dogs or where they might be going on their next holiday. You can quickly find common ground that way, which makes ongoing conversation a whole lot more natural. And don’t be afraid to divulge some of your own personal information – it depicts honesty and shows you as a trustworthy person. And that’s the most valuable trait in any business relationship.
  4. Hunt in packs: It’s no secret that a little moral support goes a very long way. If you can team up with someone you know, you will feel more confident and may be able to bounce off one another to engage in conversation. And if not, put your early nervous energy into finding someone in a similar situation, get the small talk out of the way and welcome them into your pack.
  5. Seek out the hosts: Event hosts or organisers are generally more than happy to provide introductions, so if you find yourself standing on your own wondering what to do next, seek them out. You can approach them under the guise of thanking them for the invite and chances are they’ll introduce you to someone else. It is in their interests to ensure their event is a success, so they will typically work to ensure lots of networking is done.
  6. Aim to speak to a small number of people: Rather than setting your sites on talking to everyone in the room, aim to have four or five conversations. The smaller numbers are more achievable so the sense of accomplishment comes easily, plus without the self-imposed pressure to achieve a quota of conversations, you can spend more time talking to people and have more meaningful conversations.
  7. Target the third person: Humans have a natural tendency to pair off, so if you’re looking for someone to talk to, target the groups of three (or any uneven number of people) and identify the person who’s not so involved in the discussion. They’ll almost certainly welcome the opportunity to pair off with you too.
  8. Have a default follow-up plan: You’ve fronted up, struck up some decent conversations and the event has almost come to an end. But where to from here? Make a point of swapping business cards or contact details if you think there’s any value in doing so. Then send a follow-up email and an invitation to connect on LinkedIn. And don’t be afraid to suggest a follow-up meeting if there are opportunities to be explored. It’s those follow-ups that often yield the higher value results.
  9. Relax, it’s not such a big deal: Remember you’re not at a United Nations summit with a deadline to address climate change. You’re at a networking event and everyone else’s intention is to network too, so be game, make the first move and reap the rewards.