The schedule said the speaking event started at 5:30. I had a class at 6:30. If I left a little early, I could catch most of the panel on generational interaction in the workplace. I showed up a little before 5:30 and was ready to go.
But 5:30 rolled around, and it didn’t look like things were going to start anytime soon. 5:35 comes and goes and people are milling around, chatting and networking. I asked one of the people working the welcome table when the panel would start.
“It’ll start at six.”
“Oh, I thought I read the event time as 5:30.”
“Yeah, we try to allow for networking time before the main event.”
Damn. If I’d have known that, I wouldn’t have come! I hate trying to chit chat with people I don’t know, feeling like I should be taking advantage of some vague opportunity to make meaningful, savvy connections that would advance my career or cause. Give me a committee, a project, an event, or a concrete task to do with others and I’m golden. Structure is comfortable. Cocktail hours, mixers, and open networking sessions, on the other hand, have historically been painfully awkward affairs wherein I felt anxious and out of place. Like a new kid who doesn’t know which table to sit at for lunch, and when told they can sit down with nice enough kids, doesn’t know what to do next.
I don’t have all the answers, but here are some basic tips that I use before I allow my discomfort to win and bail.
- Look for someone who appears approachable. Is there someone else looking like they don’t know what to do? Is there a friendly person who seems to know a lot of people in the room? Is there a group standing in an open formation? Two people talking slightly angled toward one another as opposed to face to face? In my UU church growing up, we were encouraged to congregate in “U”s to avoid sending a message that others weren’t welcome in our group.
- You’re both there for a reason, ask them a question about how they ended up at this event. Shared experiences are ways to bond. That’s why I prefer to bond over a shared goal. The experience of working together to reach the goal creates natural bonds. Since you don’t have that yet, use what you’ve got and find out why they came or how they heard about the event.
- Have a goal in mind. If you know what you want to accomplish, you can steer the conversation in that direction. Plus, it’s easier for people to engage around something specific than something general. You could ask if anyone knows of a database system that is great for donor and volunteer management. Or if anyone knows someone at an organization working on the cause you care about and may be open to an informational interview. You could even have the goal of simply talking to three new people.
- If you’re new at a YNPN-TC event, look around for any of our Board Members (if one hasn’t found you already). They are all people who enjoy meeting new people and making useful introductions, so they any of them will be happy to help you find someone else to talk to!
Do you have networking tips to share? Enlighten us with a comment.