Last week I attended a small business, women's networking event, where I mingled with over 100 women. Just typing that puts a huge lump in my throat. This social introvert loves meeting new people, but the idea of being put into a room with over a hundred women you do not know? That's just a different ball game. I actually persuaded myself twice to not go—even to the point of messaging my husband and letting him know I'd be home after work. My reasons seemed legit.
It may have been a combination of my best friend giving me a crown of confidence (don't ask), my husband telling me it wasn't okay for me to skip out, and the fact that I dressed up that forced me into it. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the parking lot of our MeetUp location, pretending to text on my phone until it was 10 minutes 'till the event time (one cannot be TOO early). I walked slowly and steadily through the rain towards the entrance, fixing my hair over, and over, and...
What the heck am I doing?
Two hours later. Purse full of business cards, chatting with a girl my age on the way out, and as if I networked all of the time, shouted after her, "It was fantastic connecting with you! See you next month!"
I survived. And I not only survived, I somewhat thrived. Here's what I learned from my first networking event, and why you shouldn't be afraid to just put yourself out there. (If I can do it, you can do it.)
1. The first "hello" is the hardest. I was standing in line, waiting to sign in and get my name tag. I awkwardly made eye-contact with the person standing in front of me. Then looked behind me and awkwardly made eye contact with that person, too. Are we supposed to start yet? How do I say hi without sounding salesy? Or like I'm just saying hi because I want to hand out my first business card? Finally the woman in front of me broke the barrier with a resounding, "Hello!" and it's like the tension of the moment melted away. Turns out, she needs design work. Networking starts immediately, even before you sign in. So just say hi!
2. You're not the only one. Even if it isn't their first time, there's still a fear of the unknown. They're still putting themselves out there, just like you are. I met one group-regular at the very beginning of the event, and I even spotted her wandering around not talking to anyone at one point. There was also a huge number of first-timers, so it was kind of fun shuffling around and finding one another. "Is this your first time? MINE TOO! Way to go!" Instant connection.
3. Everyone is there to do the same things you're trying to do. It's just understood that you're there to talk business, and to try to make sales. No one is there just to make good friends. That's why in the same breath as "My name is," there's also "and here's my business card." There's no awkwardness of subtly trying to work in what you do. Instead it's presumed—you're supposed to be selling yourself!
4. There will be down times. There's a point where you'll hit your stride and become a self-marketing beast. You'll find yourself in this circle of people who can't wait to talk with you, and you're just having flat-out GOOD conversation! But then, you'll leave that group, and you'll find yourself standing in silence. No one will be looking at you, trying to engage with you... hmmm, maybe now would be a good time to restock my pocket with business cards. Accept it, embrace it, endure it.
Tips for your next networking event:
1. Dress up. It's a casual event, but truth is—the nicer you're dressed, the more seriously you're taken. I spotted one girl wearing holey jeans and a tank with her bra straps showing. Her business? No idea. I assumed she wasn't concerned with "brand."
2. Just go for it. If you're uncomfortable, you're doing it right. Networking is meant to put you someplace you've never been before. It's supposed to be uncomfortable. Take a deep breath, put on an authentic smile, then put one foot in front of the other.
3. Get up and mingle. At one point I got comfortable. I was chatting and sharing a drink with two ladies, and sitting on my butt FELT SO GOOD! Then one of the ladies said- "I should really get up and mingle. Talk to you later!" I swallowed my last comfortable sip of water, then literally forced myself to stand. Comfortable, to uncomfortable.
4. Approach everyone. I learned that YOU have to be the one to just walk up to people. I blame my height on why people won't approach me (I'm 6'2" and can come off as incredibly intimidating—or so I've been told); but regardless, you just have to make up your mind that you'll be the one uncomfortably walking up to strangers and introducing yourself. I think if you accept it, you''ll just do it. And then when someone walks up to you, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
5. Have your go-to lines ready. Assume that the most popular questions you'll get asked are, "so what is it you do?" And "What do you specialize in?" (and that the unsaid question is—what the heck can you do for me?) Have your answers ready and polished. Poor example: "I'm a graphic designer and do it all!" Eh. Better: "I'm a graphic designer for local small businesses and specialize in brand development." #winning
Honestly, if you've never been to a local networking event, go to one. Everyone has to experience it at some point. And while probably 75% of the connections I made will never turn into a sale, I have a better understanding of the businesses out there in my community and the people behind them. And hey, there's still that 25% that'll mean income. Worth it? Most definitely.
I'm already trying to get myself ramped up for next month's event. It's kind of like standing in line for a rollercoaster. You had fun, you did. And that's why you're in line to go a second time. But as you near the front of the line, all you can think about are the most terrifying parts of the ride and how you'll have to endure it again. Just stay positive!
Have you ever gone networking locally? What was your experience like?