Networking is easy, right? Right?!

Originally commissioned from Marion by Planning Institute Australia (Queensland), published in Agenda Connect Summer 2022.

I went to a networking event when lockdowns eased in 2020, just to get out and mix with fellow professionals. It was an architecture thing and I didn’t know anyone, like *no-one*.  There was free food and drink though, and a presentation on historical details in architecture so I thought it would be interesting and worth the effort. I drove, so didn’t have any of the free drink. There was zero vegetarian catering, so I didn’t have any food. The presentation was so technical that I could barely follow it, and struggled to stay awake. Then it was time to network… and my evening did not improve.

We go to conferences, breakfasts, catch ups and award dinners to build our networks and connect with each other’s professional ideas, experiences and opportunities. Planning Institute Australia (PIA) hosts events and special interest networks with the specific purpose of supporting professional networks and providing a platform for members to connect with colleagues. You can hardly move on career websites or business platforms like Forbes and HBR without bumping into an article extolling the benefits of networking. And with LinkedIn, *the* professional networking platform, posting an FY21 annual revenue of over $10 billion (USD), it’s clearly very big business.

Easier said than done

How do you go about connecting with your fellow professionals? On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable are you making new connections when you attend an event? How confident do you feel walking up to strangers to say hello?

I’m a professional speaker, engager and facilitator. It’s my job to bring people together, talk to strangers, help people to connect, put them at their ease. And I am still always, *always*, uncomfortable when I try to meet someone new in a professional networking situation.

In the example above, when it was time for mingling, everyone else clearly knew each other. I foisted myself onto a happily chatting pair (there were only happily chatting pairs there), made excellent professional small talk for five minutes, and left. I’d clearly misjudged my event on that occasion but still stuck it out because I have for many years now had a deal with myself: just talk to two people I don’t already know and then I’m allowed to stop.

How to make it easier

So that’s my first tip – have a goal for yourself about what you’re trying to achieve. You might want to be specific about whom you wish to meet, if you want to exchange contact details, or even set up a time to catch up properly with someone you’ve just met. My deal is purely quantitative – two new people – in the hope that quality will come out of it.

Here are some more tips:

  • Have some opening lines up your sleeve, such as ‘what did you think of the speaker?’ and if all else fails, yes, it *is* okay to talk about the weather and how hard it was to find the venue.
  • Be natural; if you’re feeling uncomfortable striking up a conversation, you can say so, that’s cool, the other person is quite possibly feeling a bit awks as well.
  • Look for someone else on their own; someone who is looking around as if they’d like to chat (rather than someone who’s facing into a corner trying to choke down an overly large canape).
  • No other loners? Look for three people together; when you join them, you will more naturally split into two pairs for easier conversation.
  • Be genuinely interested in the other person, ask open questions, and reciprocate with information about yourself or your interests (don’t be like me that one time I was practising too hard to be interested in the other person and they eventually thanked me for the interview and asked if they’d got the job).
  • Give yourself a pep talk before you start, to induce some confidence; take some deep breaths to manage your anxiety.
  • Give yourself a pat on the back when you’ve reached your goal, and retreat to your mates or solitude if you need to.
  • If you know lots of people there, be the connector for others, introducing people you know have shared interests, or think will get along.
  • Business cards are still a thing – do take them, do share them, do follow up on the ones that are given to you (don’t accidentally give them out again to someone else mistaking them for yours).

Also what not to do

These are probably obvious, but just in case:

  • Don’t get hyped on coffee and talk too quickly for other people to understand you (see confidence above – breathing is a really good idea).
  • Similarly, don’t hit the courtesy bar so hard that the next day you will wish you had stayed at home; this is a situation where ‘dutch courage’ is ill-advised (don’t ask me how I know this).
  • Don’t be glued to your phone; yes it’s a security blanket but it will also stop others from trying to connect with you.
  • Avoid the canapes if they are too messy or big to eat without wearing them or unhinging your jaw (do eat though if you’re drinking; maybe just be the person in the corner for a minute to wrestle with undainty morsels before attempting to connect with someone new).

Go get ‘em!

This advice translates easily to online events and can also be applied to personal contexts. Give my tips a go at your next event and let me know how it worked for you!

Want more?

To read up on the value of networking and pick up some more tips, try:

Kara Dennison in Forbes, Why Networking Is Still Important And How To Use It To Continue Striving In Your Career

Hannah Kingston in The Mandarin: Hate networking? Here are 11 reasons why you should love it

Paige Cohen in Harvard Business Review: Get Better at Networking: Our Favourite Reads

And to really work on your networking presence, consider coaching with me!

2 thoughts on “Networking is easy, right? Right?!”

  1. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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