The word "networking" tends to elicit a collective groan from job seekers worldwide. Turns out, there’s something about putting on your power suit, grabbing a stack of business cards, and heading to an event where you know exactly no one that makes people want to run for the hills.
I hear you. Networking’s never been my favorite activity, either, but when I realized just how powerful it was for my professional life, I tried to find ways to make it a little more exciting.
Enter: this list. Read on for the best tips from Daily Muse writers and career experts around the web on how to make networking less intimidating, less awkward, and less painful—and maybe even a little bit fun.
1. Stop Saying Networking
Reconfigure what you think when you hear the word "networking." In fact, scratch that word altogether, and think of your next networking event as an "open exchange"—one with no pressure and plenty of opportunity. At an "open exchange,” you’re free to share ideas, contacts, information, and resources with tons of interesting people. The prospects that inspires are boundless, and it doesn’t cost much more than a conversation. Already sounds better, right?
2. Choose Non-Lame Events
Don’t just go to any old event—choose events where you know you'll have something in common with people, like conferences that relate specifically to your industry or happy hours put on by your alumni association. It’s much easier to make conversation in these groups than it is at more general events.
3. Or, Host Your Own!
Email 10 of your friends, suggest a place and date, and ask each person to bring someone new. To keep the event more professional, you could plan a structured conversation about everyone’s career goals, status of their job satisfaction, or even current industry trends.
Instead of just attending an event, "volunteer to help with raffles or name tags. It'll give you an excuse to talk to people, and that makes it much easier to follow through and be social. Plus you never know whom you'll meet." Success Coaching
5. Think Outside the Networking Event
Remember, not all networking has to happen at cocktail hour types of events. In fact, some of the most interesting relationship-building can happen elsewhere. See if there’s a conference you can attend, a hackathon you can participate in, or even a project you can help with. These sorts of events will put you in a much more collaborative environment that will allow you to get to know people in a different way than by simply drilling them with questions.
6. Go Out to Dinner
If you love to try new restaurants, joining a social dining site is a great way to connect with others. Sites like BlendAbout revolve around group dining experiences with people who share common interests—think yoga enthusiasts going out for a raw food dinner or fellow freelance writers dining on sushi. Having a meal with a bunch of folks who share not only your love for food but other interests as well makes it easy to strike up conversations.
7. Do Some Snooping
Before any event, research the attendees ahead of time by looking at the guest list or checking Twitter to see who’s tweeting in advance of the event. Find out who they are, where they work, and what the overall dynamic is going to be at the event. When you know what to expect, you'll not only feel more relaxed, but you can also come up with some conversation starters that are customized to the group of people you’ll be spending time with.
8. Pick a Goal
For each event you to go, set a goal—say, making 10 new connections that evening, or striking up conversation with three people. When you meet it? You can head out—and pat yourself on the back. Or, even better:
9. Treat Yo’self
Think of what you’d rather be doing instead of going to the event, and set it up as a reward for yourself for after you go. Say, if you leave the event with three business cards, you’re allowed to meet your friends for a drink or rent a movie for the night. That way, you’ll get some solid networking in, but still have time to rejuvinate.
10. Bring a Wingman
If you're really nervous about attending a networking event, bring a friend along with you. While you don't want to talk to the same person all night, it can be easier to approach and meet people when you have someone else by your side. And when you do split up, you can contact-swap the interesting people you meet.
11. Dress for Networking Success
Skip the boring black suit, and wear something that makes you feel great—your favorite blazer, a statement necklace, or your go-to power meeting outfit. Walking into a room feeling comfortable and knowing you look fabulous is a serious confidence booster.
12. Go in With Conversation Starters
Walking up to someone you don’t know is a whole lot easier when you have a few go-to icebreakers in your back pocket. Our favorites? Anything related to food (“I can’t stop eating these meatballs. Have you tried them?”), a non-controversial news topic (“Wow, I just can’t believe all the crazy headlines today. What a week!”), or something funny (“I’ll be honest, the only person I know here is the bartender, and I just met him two minutes ago. Mind if I introduce myself?”). Even something as simple as “What a beautiful venue. Have you been here before?” works great.
13. Grab a Drink
Seriously, heading to the bar is a great activity to do when you first walk in a room. It gives you someone to talk to right off the bat (the bartender), a chance to make small talk with people around you as you wait for a drink, and something to hold while you circulate the room.
14. Pretend You’re at a Dinner Party
You’re interesting, you’re likeable, and you have a lot to say—just ask your friends and family. So, instead of entering into conversations trying to find the perfect thing to say or worrying that you’re not interesting or witty enough, just pretend you’re at a dinner party with your closest friends, and be yourself.
15. Set Your Emotional Vibe to Curious
"Rather than gritting your teeth and diving in aggressively, take a moment to re-set the desperate or anxious emotional vibe you’re giving off…setting your emotional vibe to 'curious' rather than 'how-soon-can-I-leave' or 'I need everyone to notice me.' This can go a long way to make people feel at ease. It’s like turning on an inner smile; suddenly you become more of a potential friend and ally, and less of a threat." Get Storied
16. Approach Pairs, Not Singles
"If you see a pair of people talking, the chances are that they arrived together and know they should be mingling. Or else they've just met and are, in the back of their minds, worried that they're going to end up talking to this one person all night. (You've just made it easier for one of them to exit.) Either way, they're relieved to see you. And your chances of having a decent conversation are better, because now you're talking to two people, not just one." Inc
17. Get Personal
Look for a common spark as you're talking with someone, and don’t worry if it doesn’t involve work. In fact, it’s often more meaningful if it doesn’t. It goes without saying that people are more likely to want to help and get involved if they feel a personal affiliation with you.
18. Ask Interesting Questions
"My favorite question is: 'What’s keeping you busy these days?' It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby), and it is preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): 'What do you do?'” Positively Positive
19. Open Up
In networking settings, we often tend to put on our strictly business faces, and while it’s important to be professional, sharing a little bit more about yourself is a great way to make connections. As Achim Nowak, author of Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within, explained in a recent article: “When we reveal something personal, it gives your listener permission to do the same. I don’t believe in oversharing, but the more risks we take in being vulnerable, the more people are drawn to us because we seem real.”
20. Know When to Cut Your Losses
"Sometimes, we only have ourselves to blame for awkward networking experiences. But there are times when it’s not your fault and a networking event is just plain bad. Ereleases.com gives us '5 Signs You’ve Stumbled Into a Bad Networking Event,' a list of some signs that the event you’re at is a bust, and you should run for the hills. You don’t want to waste a night talking with no one, or talking with people who don’t want to work with you, or feeling so awkward that you have to drink five glasses of wine in the first half hour just to get through it." AfterCollege
21. Eliminate the Competition
"If you're intimidated by the prospect of glad-handing your way through a room full of strangers, set up a one-on-one meeting over coffee or drinks. Better yet, ask a mutual friend or acquaintance to facilitate an introduction." FindLaw
Tell us! What makes networking less scary and more fun for you?
Photo of crowd courtesy of arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.