What comes to mind when you think of a “great networker?”

For many, those words conjure up an image of a smooth-talker confidently striding into a room of 100 people, and walking away having interacted with well over half of them.

But in my opinion, that picture isn’t necessarily accurate. In fact, I think it’s a big part of the reason why networking has such a negative connotation. Because when you network the “stereotypical” way, most of the interactions are going to feel forced, transactional, and sometimes even exploitative.

“Stereotypical” networkers often view networking as a sales event, and measure the value of each interaction by how much value they can extract from the other person.

Is it any wonder networking’s gotten such a bad reputation over the years?

If the idea of walking into a networking event makes your stomach turn, this article’s for you. In it, I’ll introduce you to networking the way I believe it should be done; and it may just change your perspective.

Note: Got an upcoming networking event? Download our quick-reference guide, Networking Events Demystified: 9 Rules to Nail Networking Conversations Every Time.

Revolutionize Your Networking Mindset

In contrast to the example above, the best networkers I know enter events with a single goal: To walk into the room and provide as much relevant, meaningful value as possible to at least ten people.

That’s a pretty stark contrast, and it all stems from one key belief: 

Networking should be an opportunity to provide value, not take it.

But what does that value look like? It depends on the conversation, but it’s usually pretty simple. For example:

  • You could offer resources to someone that might help with a challenge they’re facing. If, for example, you met someone who was struggling to balance time with their kids with an all-consuming work life, you could send them an article you read on that very topic.
  • Or maybe you can offer on-the-spot advice. If someone shares that they’re having trouble maintaining relationships within their growing team, you might tell them about how you use watercooler conversations to scale your internal relationships.
  • Or you can even offer a potential introduction. For example: If you meet a promising fintech startup CEO with unique insights into the industry looking for funding, and you happen to know a VC who just told you they’re looking to expand their portfolio into the fintech space, you could offer a connection.

Most entrepreneurs I know are driven by a genuine desire to help others. That’s why they started their business in the first place, but it’s also why traditional networking is so uncomfortable for them.

By changing your mindset—from taking to giving—you can change your thought patterns and perceptions around the whole practice of networking.

Get Over Yourself: 5 Ways to Walk into a Networking Event & Start a Conversation

That might sound all well and good, but how do you actually act on this information?

If you identify as an introvert, walking into a room of strangers and starting a conversation is often easier said than done. But the good news is, you don’t need to become an extrovert to be great at networking.

In fact, I consider myself an introvert. But I made one empowering distinction to overcome my natural aversion to networking events: Instead of trying to “become an extrovert,” I committed to becoming an introvert who practiced the traits of an extrovert.

For example: One of the most powerful networking abilities of an extrovert is their ability to enter the room and start a conversation with the first person they see.

I realized that, as an introvert, if I didn’t start a conversation right away, I probably never would. As a result, I’d end up leaving the event thinking it was a waste of time with all sorts of rationalizations about why the event was bad (even though I knew the problem was me).

However: I knew if I could master that extroversion trait, I could fundamentally change my perception of (and performance during) networking events. And adopting that single trait made all the difference.

So, with that in mind, here are 5 strategies I adopted to start my first conversations.

Tip #1: Talk to the First Person You See (No Matter Who They Are)

If these events don’t come naturally to you, it’s easy to get stuck in your own head. In fact, I know many people who spend half the event trying to pick the “right person” to talk to first.

If that sounds like you, you can overcome this tendency by forcing yourself to talk to the first person you see. For example: Someone you notice while walking from your Lyft to the event, or whoever you’re standing behind in the registration queue.

Keep in mind, this initial conversation can be about anything.  It doesn’t really matter what you say or how valuable that person might be, because the purpose of this conversation is to get warmed up and to make starting the following conversations that much easier.

So just start with something simple like, “What brought you to the event?” You’ll be able to get into deeper conversations later on using the momentum this first conversation gives you.

Tip #2: Master the 5 Second Rule

Here’s a great way to turn networking into a game: Create a rule for yourself that, once you make eye contact with someone, you must go up to them and talk to them within 5 seconds.

And then add another rule: You’re not allowed to do anything else until this conversation happens. Eventually you’ll have a new habit triggered by eye contact, so that anytime it happens, you’ll automatically walk over.

The benefit of this is that it overrides one of the primary factors limiting us from taking action: The fear of what “might happen” or what someone “might think.”

After all: When all you’ve got is 5 seconds to act, there’s no time for worry.

Tip #3: Remember: You’re Your Own Worst Critic (and Progress Trumps Perfection)

So often, people get stuck in their own heads as they worry about how they might be perceived. As a result, we try to come up with the perfect approach until we’ll even consider walking up to someone. However …

Perfectionism is often paralyzing, and that paralysis often leads to missed opportunities.

The reality is, no one’s judging your every move or word. In fact, half the attendees are probably too busy worry about what you think about them to bother judging you.

Remember: Everyone at the event has the same goal as you: To meet new people and establish valuable relationships. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of performance.

Tip #4: Don’t Get Caught Off Guard

One of the most common obstacles people encounter is not knowing what to say to start a conversation. The trick is, you don’t need a new opening statement for every conversation.

Pick one or two “default” conversation starters and rely on those. This helps you overcome the often-paralyzing fear of not knowing what to say and gets you back in the game.

Here’s a few examples of default questions you could ask to start a conversation:

  • “What brought you out here today?” Although a little bland, this question is a safe starter that often gives you enough context about the person to dig a little deeper.
  • “How did you spend last weekend?” This question often catches people off-guard (in a good way) and can be a great starter to get people talking about their passions without being too invasive.
  • “Hey, can I ask you a question?” Of course, most people will say yes and you’ll have an open door to continue the conversation. A great follow-up to this is, “I’m feeling a little off-balance in my life right now, and I’m curious: What do you do to recuperate when you feel yourself getting burnt out?”

Note: The key here is to ask questions you’re genuinely interested in. Authenticity is the name of the game, and high-quality people can almost always tell when you’re just placating them.

Quick Tip: Study the Science of Smiles

The science of smiles study is an example of how people who are more attuned can tell on a subconscious level if you’re being authentic. The study, conducted by UC Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner, distinguishes between the two primary types of smiles:

The Pan-American Smile—named after the fake smile flight attendants were trained to display at all times—is the “entertainment” smile. Generally speaking, it’s a “mouth-only” smile that may look attractive, but feels disconnected.

While the Pan Am Smile may be appropriate for the service industry, it won’t fly with high-quality people. And if someone doesn’t think you’re being genuine, this can cause a breach in trust that’s very difficult to overcome in a short networking conversation.

In contrast to the Pan Am Smile is the Duchenne Smile. This is a smile that only comes as a result of genuine happiness or joy. It’s immediately apparent because it engages all the muscles in the face, not just the mouth.

One of the key indicators of a Duchenne Smile are wrinkles around the eyes. You’ll usually also see a gleam in the persons’ eyes.  And although these differences might seem subtle, our brains have evolved to subconsciously pick up on these misalignments in communication.

You can clearly see the difference between a Pan Am Smile (on the left) and a Duchenne Smile (on the right) below.

Tip #5: Boost Your Natural Curiosity and Interest in Others

We’re all born with a natural curiosity. For proof of this, look no further than kids: They don’t hesitate to ask questions, “appropriate” or not. But over the years, societal expectations dampen that curiosity. It’s your job to reclaim it.

Here’s one simple-but-effective way to boost your natural curiosity: Before you walk into the room, proactively choose to be curious about something that genuinely interests you, then create a default question centered around that topic.

For example: You might decide you want to learn more about prospecting. More specifically, you want to know how startups of difference sizes landed their first ten customers. Your question might be something like, “I’m curious: Back when you founded your startup, what did you do to land your first ten customers?”

When you’re genuinely curious and hungry for knowledge, you’re going to be much more likely to not only initiate a conversation; you’re going to stay engaged through to the end. Want to learn more? Check out Send Your Curiosity Through the Roof in Three Steps!

If the idea of curiosity themes isn’t for you, try instead to enter each networking event with the goal of uncovering at least one fascinating story from a stranger.

There’s a famous Chinese proverb that says, “Beneath every grave stone lies a world history.” Make it your goal to discover pieces of that history by intentionally seeking out the most exciting or intriguing stories others have to share.

The Secret to Long-Term Networking Success

Now that you have the right tools and strategies to get started, let’s make sure you allow yourself room to grow and succeed within this new framework.

That all starts with a simple belief: 

You must see yourself as someone who can—and will—become great at networking.

That belief is a result of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the Growth Mindset. After years of research, Dweck has identified two learning mindsets: The Growth Mindset and the Fixed Mindset.

  • The Fixed Mindset: Those with a Fixed Mindset believe “they are who they are.” They believe people are just wired certain ways, and that they can only make small, incremental changes in their life. They view failure as a reflection of their identity and, as a result, tend to be risk-averse.
  • The Growth Mindset: Those with a Growth Mindset believe they have the power to create the change they seek and believe they can succeed at anything they put their mind to. They view failure as an opportunity to learn and grow and, as a result, regularly step outside their comfort zone.

To reach your fullest potential at anything in life, you must adopt a Growth Mindset. Not sure which mindset you subscribe to? Read these 4 statements and, for each one, ask yourself: “Do I agree to disagree?”

  1. I am a certain type of person, and there isn’t much that can be done to change who or what I am.
  2. Regardless of what type of person I am, I always have the power to change substantially.
  3. I can act and do things differently, but the important parts of who I am cannot be changed.
  4. I can always change the basic things about the type of person I am.

If you agreed with #1 and #3, you likely lean more toward a Fixed Mindset. If you agreed with #2 and #4, you likely lean more toward a Growth Mindset.

If you resonate more with the Fixed Mindset, there’s good news: You have a choice in the matter. Dweck’s research shows that a Growth Mindset can be learned.

But that’s a topic in and of itself. If you want to learn more about overcoming a Fixed Mindset, I recommend reading Dweck’s book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Owning the Room at Your Next Networking Event

Ultimately, I want to leave you with this promise: Everyone has a path that can lead to a genuine love of networking; and it all starts with a shift in mindset and the adoption of a few simple strategies.

For many people, it’s this simple: By entering each new interaction with an authentic desire to learn about and provide value to the other person, you’ll revolutionize the way you connect with others.

And in doing so, you’ll fundamentally change the way you interact with and leverage your network, granting you access to breakthrough opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Now the choice is yours, and what happens next is up to you. Are you going to take what you learned and turn it into action, or file it away as another “good idea” that’s ultimately forgotten?

If you’re committed to mastering the strategies you’ve learned today and owning the room at your next networking event, round out your learning by downloading our free book, Networking Events Demystified: 9 Rules to Nail Networking Conversations Every Time.