We’ve spent a lot of time indoors over the last year and a half, with our social interactions being largely restricted to Zoom, phone calls, emails and texts. While some people have already started to return to their offices, others are still working from home for the foreseeable future.
Every country and region is progressing at its own rate, but as life begins to make its gradual return to normality, it’s to be expected that many of us will feel some amount of anxiety and trepidation when returning to larger social events.
Even if, in the past, you felt right at home in a networking event, surrounded by people you’ve never met before, now it’s understandable to feel out of practice. To help you get back into the swing of it, we’ve outlined a few points to try to remember as you begin to mix and mingle again, building up your in-person connections once again.
1. Remember that everyone’s experienced the lockdown
If you only remember one thing, remember that everyone at a networking event (and any event you go to) is a real person with their own lives and experiences. This means they’ve also all lived through the lockdowns, sat through unknown hours of video calls and haven’t had many face-to-face conversations.
You can be sure you aren’t the only one feeling social anxiety and out of practice. This can actually be a good ice breaker. If you feel comfortable, you could share an experience of lockdown and even mention that this is your first networking event in over a year. The person you’re talking to may feel exactly the same or should at least be able to empathise with you.
As well as social anxiety, many people will still feel physical nerves due to the pandemic. Depending on your local situation, some events may require you to wear masks and maintain social distancing, while others will leave it up to personal choice. You may want to continue wearing a mask, and not everyone will want to shake your hands. Be patient and understanding while everyone finds what they’re comfortable with.
2. Act like a real person
When given a choice, people generally prefer to work with people they already know, like and trust. Don’t just share your business details and leave a conversation, spend time getting to know the other people and let them get to know you. Talk about more than just work; make the conversation meaningful.
Networking is a give and take, having something to offer is just as important as finding people who could be useful to you. There will always be an element of selling yourself to someone and trying to showcase why you’re a useful contact for them, but there’s more to it than that. People may not need you straight away, but if you can establish a long-term relationship with someone, then you’ll be at the front of their mind when they do need someone like you. If you only think about the short-term benefits, you can miss out on many bigger and better connections.
3. Be deliberate with your personal brand
Confidence, both inwardly and outwardly, is key when networking and talking about yourself and what you do. If you don’t sound like you believe you’re good at it, why should anyone else believe it either? ‘Fake it till you make it’ is a legitimate strategy, but an even better one is to spend some time before the event considering your special set of skills and areas of expertise. Once you know your strengths and unique selling point, it will be much easier convincing others.
Think about your personal brand. Be deliberate with what you say, how you’re dressed and what information you share, so you’re in control of the impression they’re left with. Additionally, be ready with your business cards and make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date.
4. Look for ways to actively make and take opportunities
During lockdown you may not have had too many opportunities to practise the social back-and-forth that is a conversation. So, once you’ve got talking to someone new at a networking event, it’s important to remember what to do next. Listen as much as you talk. You should certainly aim to give your elevator pitch, but it’s equally important to listen to other people’s. This isn’t just for politeness, but also because you should be on the lookout for exciting new connections that could lead to exciting new opportunities.
There’s an important distinction between someone who’s just attending a networking event and a genuine ‘Networker.’ The former might speak to a few random people that they may or may not follow up with later. Instead, you should aspire to be the Networker – using their time wisely, having already looked up ahead of time who they want to spend time with rather than leaving it to serendipity. They can create connections without pushing too hard, able to be the middleman setting up other connections, knowing they don’t always need to be the centre of attention. These aren’t things that come naturally to everyone, but with a little time and proactive effort, you can once again work the room like you used to.
5. Don’t forget to follow up
If you’ve done everything else right, you’ll have made a few new connections. Perhaps you’ve gone home having given and received some business cards or new LinkedIn connections. The hard part’s over and you can breathe a sigh of relief, but your work’s not quite done yet. You need to keep these relationships alive. When you need to call on someone for help, having one conversation at an event six months ago probably isn’t really going to be enough for them to put the effort in.
Keep the conversation going and remain a useful part of their network. Start with a friendly message or email to say you enjoyed meeting them. Perhaps reference something you were discussing or send them a link to an article they might find interesting. If you’ve added each other on LinkedIn, the occasional comment on a post or sharing something they’ll find useful is also a good way to keep the connection alive. This way, when you need help or a door opened for you, you’ll have positioned yourself as someone they want to help.
It’s normal to feel anxious or frustrated when you feel rusty in a situation you used to thrive in. By reminding yourself of these key points, being patient with yourself while you find your feet again and putting yourself in situations to keep practising, you’ll soon be the master networker again.
For more tips on networking and other Sales and Business Development advice, take a look at our Learning Solutions.