Some people love networking and some people dread it. For most of my work-life, I dreaded it. Networking made me nervous (and still does, just not as much). The thought of walking into a room full of name-tag-wearing, chatty, successful and smart-looking people I didn’t know made me want to curl up in bed and read a book. The problem was that I had a sales job so networking was part of it. I’ve been to countless fancy events and casual meet-and-greets, and regardless of the venue or group, it was almost always an uncomfortable and intimidating experience for me.

I tried getting advice from my mentors and colleagues about how to enjoy networking. There had to be a secret! But when I asked about it, I’d get one of two responses: “I don’t know, I don’t like it either,” or “Just go talk to people!” So with nothing left to do, I’d arm myself with an elevator speech, put on my best clothes, smile, and push myself out there because this is what you do when you have a job to bring in new clients.

I refer to this experience of networking as “Meet people in order to gain clients,” as represented by my hopeful formula:
Meet people + say Elevator Speech + figure out what else to say – – – -> New client.

That was my experience for many years.

Then it changed, in a most unexpected way. About 2 years ago I decided to leave my 20-year consulting career. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next but I knew that figuring it out included meeting new people. How else was I supposed to learn about different jobs I might like to do? I met people for coffee and drinks, went to events, talked to friends of friends, etc. I didn’t think of any of this as networking because I had nothing to sell and I wasn’t looking for a specific job. I was simply learning and curious about what people did. It wasn’t until after a few months of doing this that a friend asked me how my networking was going. I was surprised: THIS is networking? I liked it!

I had no pressure to say the right thing or look all-put-together or to get someone interested in what I do. Also, in this “new” networking, I learned that people are kind and generous. They genuinely want to help – with their time, expertise, advice and connections.

Networking changed from “meet people in order to get something from them” to “get together and maybe we can help each other now or in the future.” Networking became a way of serving people. Like in life, networking is way more fun when it’s an experience of Giving vs Trying To Get.

But let’s go back to when networking was intimidating and uncomfortable for me. During that time, I developed a 3-step preparation guide which I still use today because even though I enjoy networking, I still get nervous, and preparation always sets my mind at ease.

Here are 3 things anyone (even Introverts!) can do to prepare for a networking event:

  1. Think about your audience: who are you going to meet? Men, women, age group, industry, expertise, and interests are all characteristics to consider.
  2. Based on who your audience is, what are 3 topics you can discuss with anyone there?
    Your mode with these topics is to be curious and interested. Don’t worry about being interesting. You’ll have time to talk about yourself – we’ll get to that in #3. “If you want to be interesting, be interested.” – David Ogilvy
    At the risk of contributing to stereotypes, I have found that men and women tend to talk about different things: Men – sports, business, yardwork, fitness, wine, craft beer, food. Women – some of the same, plus maybe fashion and family. Everyone – travel, vacation and weekend plans.
  3. What are 3 positive and interesting things you can share about yourself? A few ideas: a favorite fitness program, a recent vacation, an interesting new work project, learning something new.

And then when you get there: Smile. Keep your arms at your sides. Wear clothes that you feel great in and are comfortable, and have fun getting to know some new and interesting people.