If the thought of your next professional gathering already has your skin crawling, you’re not alone. According to LinkedIn’s 2017 global user survey, 80 percent of members say networking is an important avenue for career development, yet over a third find it difficult to know what to say to make and maintain these connections.
Fortunately, science has your back. These research-backed strategies will help keep your nerves at bay and find genuine, mindful connections that make the night memorable, for once.
Get there early
Plan to arrive on the early side, within the first hour or so. Often referred to as “introvert hour,” this is when people are still trickling in and getting the lay of the land — and are most receptive to new conversations. A later arrival means people will already be deep in conversation in groups, making it more difficult for you to find an opening.
And for lasting conversations, head to the bar. “When they have their drink in their hand and they turn to face the room after exiting the bar, they are ready to mingle,” Vanessa Van Edwards, behavioral researcher and author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding With People, told Business Insider. Steer clear of the entryway, as new arrivals are more likely to excuse themselves so they can find the host and get settled in, Van Edwards cautioned.
Break the ice
Striking up a conversation with a stranger feels awkward largely because you don’t know what, if anything, you have in common. If you’re at a loss for what to say, it’s reassuring to know you’re far from the only one who feels that way — so you might as well address the elephant in the room.
An industry event with a bunch of strangers may not seem like the right place to be so forthcoming, but research shows honesty is more refreshing than we think. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that we anticipate that others will react more negatively to our candid comments than they actually do. And opening a conversation in this manner starts you off from the one point of commonality you know you share: You’re both here at the same event. Ask them a self-aware question, like “Tell me about yourself,” “Do you know anyone here?”, or “What would you be doing right now if you weren’t here?”, to help cut the tension in the air and allow an opening for the other person to relate to you.
Get out of your own head
If you consider yourself socially awkward, take heart: A recent study published in Psychological Science found that we tend to feel far more awkward in social interactions than we actually are to outside observers. The researchers call this the “likability gap,” and to help bridge this at a networking event, set your agenda aside and approach your conversations with genuine curiosity.
“It’s not just waiting for your turn. It is also taking in what the other person says and having some understanding of how they are and why they are,” Karen Wickre, Silicon Valley communications veteran and author of Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count, told Knowledege@Wharton. Placing full focus on your conversation partner takes you out of your own head, interrupting the spiral of self-conscious rumination that can otherwise take a toll on your nerves. And don’t forget to ask follow-up questions; a recent study found this increases perceived likability. You might discover an unexpected personal connection that wouldn’t have surfaced had you stuck to your script.
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