By Andy Lopata, Business Networking Strategist
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” Seneca
Fear of rejection
Why are we so frightened of meeting new people? Personally, I blame my mum! Throughout my childhood years my mother always used to warn me, “Don’t talk to strangers!”
This childhood fear of strangers is very powerful, especially when combined with a fear of humiliation or rejection. Whenever we are put into a position where we are expected to meet new people, the adrenaline starts to flow and the nerves kick in. It may make perfect sense to tell a young child to avoid strangers, but why do we carry this fear into adulthood? The situations faced by children and adults are very different and this advice is certainly redundant in most business or social engagements as an adult.
When was the last time that you went to a networking event and saw someone either being humiliated or being rejected? Have you ever introduced yourself to someone to be met with a scowl and a barbed remark asking, “Who do you think you are?” Have all the people in the room ever turned around and laughed at you for having the audacity to want to speak to someone you haven’t met before?
It’s very unlikely that any of these have happened to you at a networking event. After all, people attend these events because they want to meet new people. Yes, there is a chance that our ego may be damaged if someone we approach shows no interest in us. But we can just dust ourselves off, move away and make it their problem, not ours. After all, they’ve missed out on the pleasure of getting to know us!
So the first tip is to be courageous. Swallow that fear. I know that this is easier said than done. Just remind yourself that most people share the same fear, including experienced networkers like me. I network for a living, I network everywhere, I love talking to strangers, but I still don’t like that feeling of walking into a room where I don’t know anyone. I just have to remind myself why I am there and why everyone else is there and, once I have started my first conversation, I am fine.
Dip your toe into the water
Walking into an event is similar to getting into a hot bath. First you put your toe into the water, and then your foot and you gradually ease your way in. But at some point you’ve got to submerge yourself.
Start by talking to someone you know. It’s fine to speak to existing contacts, particularly if you are looking to develop your relationship with them. The key is not to spend too long with the same people and then walk out complaining that ‘that was a waste of time’.
I remember an event that we held in the head office of a major global bank. There were about two hundred people present, a dozen of whom were representing the host company.
The bank had held the event to showcase their premises to potential customers, impress them with their generosity and provide their sales team with a captive audience to discuss how they could help them.
Throughout the evening there were two groups of people in the room, about 190 small business owners networking with each other and the twelve hosts, huddled in a corner talking to each other, spending their time with the same people with whom they generally spent most of their working week.
After the event we talked to the bank’s representatives about networking. It became clear that the failure to mingle and the associated lost opportunity was a result of their fear of approaching people and the comfort of being in the company of their colleagues.
The power of introduction
Once you have got the feel of the event and feel a bit bolder, you can then ask your associates to introduce you to someone they know. Have you noticed how if we’re introduced to a stranger by a friend who knows him, we don’t see him as a stranger and we don’t have that same fear? So get a friend to introduce you to someone that he knows, or you introduce him to someone you know, and start talking.
The other advantage of this is that your companion, in introducing you, may well talk about how you have helped them, how great you are at what you do or praise you in another way that you would not have been able to do. This will awaken a greater interest in you from the new contact than may otherwise have been possible.
If there are specific people who you want to meet and you are nervous about approaching them, ask a colleague or the organiser if they know them. If they do, ask if they would be kind enough to introduce you. It will also help if you explain why you want to meet them; if they can understand your objectives, they will certainly be happier making the connection.
If you introduce someone else, make sure that you explain why you are making the connection and, if possible, the relevance your two contacts have for each other. Allow a conversation to start flowing before slipping away quietly.
If you and your companion both struggle to approach strangers and neither of you know anyone else in the room, take advantage of security in numbers to approach a group of people together. You will find that, after you have introduced each other, the group will naturally break up into smaller parties and you have smoothly moved into a conversation with a new person.
The host with the most
Act the host. If you see someone walking around on their own, go up and introduce yourself to them. Put your hand out and say “Hi, I’m Andy nice to meet you.” (I would suggest you use your own name, but the principle remains the same!) Perhaps volunteer to act as a ‘visitor host’ if you are a member of a networking organisation. This will give you the opportunity to meet all of the new people coming into the room and you will feel more comfortable speaking to them. After all, that’s your responsibility.
You don’t need to be a volunteer to be a host, however. The renowned British business coach and networking trainer, George Metcalfe, often talks about the ability of children at their parent’s parties to meet everyone there. Their mother or father gives them the crisps or nuts and invites them to pass around the room offering them to all of the guests.
I am not suggesting taking on the role of the waiters, but you can certainly start conversations by offering other people a top up of their drink or a selection from the buffet when you help yourself. In fact, the bar or buffet table is often one of the best places to start a conversation, as long as you don’t permanently have a mouth full of food!
Talking to plants
At networking events, I will often look to start a conversation with people who are on their own. It is much easier than breaking into a group conversation and the chances are they won’t tell you to leave them alone and go away. Very few people go to networking events for solitude.
You can often find these people around the bar or buffet table (they’ve probably read the advice above!) or by the walls. Nervous people on their own seldom stand in the middle of a room unless they are milling around trying to pluck up the courage to approach someone. Often they will be admiring the art on the walls or the flora in the room, which gives you a nice topic with which to start a conversation.
When approaching these people you are already at an advantage because, they will both respect your courage (which they have probably lacked) and be grateful that you’ve taken the time and effort to relieve them from their anxiety. They are probably just as nervous as everyone else, and they’ll be delighted to get into a conversation with you. You’ve rescued them from walking around, avoiding interrupting other people for fear of rejection.
When you do approach them, take care not to dive in aggressively but be empathetic to their nervous state. Ask them if they mind if you join them before introducing yourself, rather than running up asking, “So, what do you do then?”
Having spoken to them, try not to leave them on their own again because you’ll just return them to the same state you found them. Move on with them and introduce them to someone else.
If you see a group of people talking, approach the group, but don’t butt in. Remember, as Susan RoAne says in How to Work a Room, “There is a difference between including yourself in other people’s conversations and intruding on them.”
If someone’s talking and you interrupt, or ask if you can join them, people will stop listening to the person who’s talking, and invite you into their group. That’s great for you but not so nice for the person who’s talking. Stand just on the edge of the group and wait for the appropriate time.
The easiest way to approach a group is to catch the eye of one of the participants and smile. Usually they should invite you to join them at the appropriate juncture. Alternatively, it may be that they’re talking about something in which you have an interest, in which case, when there’s an appropriate pause, you can just say, “Excuse me, I heard you mention so and so. Can I ask you a question? Are you involved in that?” and you’re in the conversation. Or it may just be that you have a pause, and you ask, “May I join you?” But it’s always best to wait for the right pause in conversation.
The one thing I try to avoid is approaching two people who are in discussion. If you see two people talking together, they may be building a rapport and an interruption may break that. Alternatively, they may be discussing business.
At a networking event at the New Zealand Embassy, I was talking to someone who was involved with an overseas Alumni Association. My colleague was informing me that the Association were looking for a place to meet in London. I spotted an opportunity for one of our clients to host the meetings in their corporate headquarters and possibly benefit from meeting some of the influential business people who I assumed were members.
I was just trying to find out enough information so I could make the connection when another guest approached us. I had met Annie at a number of other networking events and smiled as she approached but carried on with the conversation as I was in the middle of a question.
“Will representatives of my client’s organisation be welcome to attend the meetings and would it be appropriate?” I asked.
“I am sure that wouldn’t be a problem and they would probably be very welcome,” came the reply.
Annie was standing alongside, with her head tilted and eyes intently focused on the two of us. From her mouth came sounds of agreement and interest, even though what we were talking about was so specific that it couldn’t possibly have engaged her.
Not wanting to be rude, we felt obliged to break our conversation to invite her in. The conversation died and I left the two of them to talk. Fortunately, I followed the contact up myself, but not everyone will, and a very strong opportunity could have been lost.
The second edition of ‘…and Death Came Third! The Definitive Guide to Networking and Speaking in Public’ is published on May 11th by Ecademy Press. You can purchase your copy on Amazon
To find out more about how to pick the right networks, implement a successful networking strategy or how to generate more referrals, please visit our website www.lopata.co.uk or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org / 01992 450488.
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