Overcoming a Fear of Networking
Imagine this: You’ve been invited to a networking event after work. There’s going to be food, wine, and a room full of people you don’t know.
For you, is this an exciting opportunity to expand your professional contacts, or something you’d rather fake a seizure to avoid?
Many of us suffer from real and disabling anxiety when presented with this kind of challenge.
A horde of unfamiliar faces, the weighty expectation that you’ll be a scintillating and confident person, and the unremitting pressure to succeed can all contribute to a bout of nerves, leaving us fragile and silent, and turning what might have been a useful and enjoyable event into yet another horror show to be endured.
If this describes you, then you’re not alone. The steps on this page should help you to overcome some of your fears.
Step One: Rethink Your Views
Begin by reviewing your attitude to networking itself. Many of us see it as an irritating chore, but it’s actually a terrific, low-cost method for bringing in new business.
Although it isn’t as direct as a cold call, or a marketing campaign, its indirectness is its virtue. At these events, we get to regard each other as people to be met and learned from, not simply as business opportunities to be exploited.
Humanizing the process of business in this way also adds a very rewarding social aspect; after all, many of our business contacts will go on to become our friends. This isn’t punishment or purgatory; it’s an opportunity to secure success.
Step Two: Analyze Your Fears
Take a moment to step back and look at your distaste (or simply fear) of networking. What scares you about it? Here are some common answers:
- They’ll see that I’m alone, and nervous, and make fun of me.
- They won’t welcome outsiders, or people who don’t conform to a given set of expectations
- I won’t be able to think of anything to say and it’ll be another awkward, silent hour of staring into my wine glass
- I get really nervous when I speak, and I’ll ramble and embarrass myself.
These seem like reasonable fears, but only until you take a close look.
- People are not, on balance, vindictive or deliberately hurtful.
- Most people want each other to succeed and be happy, and are prepared to help you.
- They’ll overlook your shyness, forgive a couple of stumbles and stutters, and treat you with compassion.
- If you’re new, then your very novelty is itself an advantage; they’ll be curious about you, and this is your chance to express who you are.
- The other issues are actually even simpler, and only require a little preparation.
Step Three: Do Your Homework
Research The Event. Who will be there? How many of them will you know, and could they help introduce you to other contacts?
Set Objectives. How many potential clients would you like to meet? Somewhere between three and five is a good place to begin. Is there anyone in particular you’d like to talk to? How many business cards do you aim to hand out?
Practice The Skills. This can be done anywhere, and connects with your own social life, as well as your work. Try to speak with two or three complete strangers every day. These don’t have to be long conversations - asking for a recommendation or directions is a good ice-breaker; chat about the weather, sports, local events, anything which might connect the two of you.
Consistently meeting new people really takes the edge off our anxiety when it comes to ‘set piece’ events like networking gatherings.
Rehearse. This might be almost as awkward as attending the networking event, but making a recording of yourself speaking will teach you volumes. Many of us speak too quickly, or mumble. Listen to your recording and see if that’s true for you. What exactly will you say as you put out your hand and introduce yourself?
Practice a few ways of doing this, and some ice-breaker sentences, such as:
“Hi, I’m Bob and I work at McIntyre. I really enjoyed your presentation on…”
“Hi, it’s nice to finally meet you. I read your book on ____ and really got a lot out of the section about…”
“Hi, my name’s Carl. I just wanted to congratulate you on the award from the Better Business Bureau.”
“Nice to meet you, my name’s Christine. I wonder if I could ask your advice on…”
Prepare Your Topics. Read the local, national and international news of the day, and come with a few topics in mind.
Ask people questions - our favorite topic is always ourselves! - and ensure that they’re open questions which require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
Step Four: Tips and Tactics
1. Stand up straight, maintain eye contact, and listen. Most attendees at networking events are basically waiting for the next chance to speak. Instead, listen actively, using eye contact, nodding and smiling, and spend the time thinking not of what you might say next, but what you might ask. This will help you stand out, and engage people more genuinely. Keep an eye on your posture, resist any temptation to fold your arms, and use your body language to express confidence even if that’s not how you truly feel.
2. Move Around the Room. Try not to hang out exclusively with the people you already know. Make a point of approaching groups of people, one of whom will probably put out a hand and invite you to join them. Hover near the food as it’s a good conversation starter. Stay off your phone; this isn’t the time to have your head down and be distracted.
3. Control Your Emotions. Recognize the fears, label them, and let them go. “OK, I’m a few seconds from meeting one of the people on my list. They’re a human being, like me. I’m interesting and I work hard. We have lots in common.” A mantra like this can help, as will some preparation.
Remember that you have every right to be there (and to exist!) Show enthusiasm for your work, and have ready something to say when asked, “So, what are you doing at the moment?”
There is often alcohol at these events, so be very careful not to over-indulge.
4. Follow Up. Collect business cards, make a note on the back as to where you met and what they’re working on, and follow up with an email or phone call in the next few days.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Develop your interpersonal skills with our series of eBooks. Learn about and improve your communication skills, tackle conflict resolution, mediate in difficult situations, and develop your emotional intelligence.
Networking need not be the gut-wrenching awkwardness it once was.
Do your homework, remind yourself of your achievements and value, and simply stick out a hand and say hello. You’ll soon see that you have no need to worry about rejection. We’re all in the same boat, fighting the same anxieties, and people are often very willing to be approached, to discuss their work with you, and to offer guidance.
About the Author
Sarah Williams is a freelance writer, passionate traveler, free spirit and yoga enthusiast. She loves encouraging people to lead a healthy and mindful lifestyle.