- Wise Words -
Bar. Table. Chat.
by mark overmann
I admit it: I can be awkward at professional networking events. While I’m generally an outgoing person, I’m reluctant to approach strangers. If I attend a professional event with a group of colleagues, I’ll talk mostly to them. If I’m there by myself, you might find me near the bar or slowly circling the room to avoid the embarrassment of standing alone. I’ve heard from many other professionals who’ve expressed similar feelings.
Yet for career development, successfully navigating professional events is essential. It can be where crucial business relationships are forged, or where a key connection that leads to a job is made. If attending events is a part of our jobs (as it is mine), we just can’t avoid them--and we certainly can’t always count on going with colleagues or running into people we know.
So how can those of us who struggle with networking events get the most out of them? Here are three easy steps that might help:
Head straight to the bar
No, no, not because you need booze to make it through. This move provides you with an immediate destination when you arrive, something to do when you first walk into the room, other than stand there awkwardly. Also, you never know who you might meet at, or on the way to, the bar.
Once you have your drink, take-a-look around. Look for someone standing alone, or a small group of two or three people. People standing at a table are ideal, which provides a set location and somewhere I can set my drink or a plate of appetizers. If there’s an open space at the table, that makes it easier for you to sidle up and join the group.
Once you’ve identified your target, simply approach and introduce yourself
Do so not too aggressively—don’t startle your intended target or abruptly interrupt a conversation. But be confident. Don’t linger and wait for your target to notice you. Use body language to indicate your intention to join (like setting your drink on the standing table), and use introductory language that inserts you, and makes you instantly a part of, the group -- you know, something like: “Hi everyone, I’m Mark.”
This cold-turkey approach can be hard for some of us. It is for me. But if there’s one thing I’ve discovered, it’s that people go to professional networking events to meet other people (I know, a groundbreaking insight). Approaching a new person and starting a conversation is, in fact, something that’s kind of expected at networking events. Plus, you’d be surprised at how many others in that room, or at that small standing table, are also a bit uncomfortable and/or alone, and will appreciate your proactive approach.
While the vague idea of approaching strangers at an event and striking up a conversation can be daunting, a simple “entry plan” such as this makes it vastly more approachable. Bar, Table, Chat!
Making it work
As an example, it worked well for me recently at a huge DC event with more than 1,000 attendees. I was going on my own. I wasn’t sure if I’d run into anyone I know. So I used my “Bar, Table, Chat” strategy to stave off the awkwardness and it went something like this…
Entered the pre-dinner reception. Headed straight for the bar (opted for a gin and tonic on that night, though sometimes I’ll do a beer, or wine, or a sparkling water). Turned and surveyed the room. Saw a guy about my age at a standing table by himself, checking his phone. Approached, set my drink down, said hi, and allowed him to finish what he was doing on his phone. He turned to me, and I introduced myself.
Turns out the one guy I chose to talk to, out of a room full of hundreds, grew up ten minutes away from me in Cincinnati, Ohio. He lives and works at a well-known company back in our hometown, and is good friends with two guys I was friends with back in high school. Small world, no? We had a great conversation centered on our Cincinnati connections, and then on our various international work. During our conversation, a colleague who writes for Foreign Policy magazine spotted me and joined us. I hadn’t seen him in more than a year, so it was great to catch up. Eventually the dinner began, and we separated to head to our tables. But the cocktail hour, which I’d been apprehensive about given that I didn’t know anyone, turned out to be time very well spent. And all because of my three step process.
Next time you’re dreading a networking event — or thinking about not going because you won’t know anyone — give this 3-step strategy a try and hope to see you at the bar!
For more on networking see: "Networking as a relationship" and "Taking a shortcut and using your network".