If you’re a normal professional, you may just feel at least a smidge of apprehension or resentment when it comes time to drag yourself to (or get dragged to) a professional networking event. Sure, sure, the crab puffs might be killer, but there are so many things to not love about these shindigs that I’d be here for hours if I tried to highlight each one.
Because that doesn’t sound fun for either of us, let’s start with four common reasons why you don’t enjoy them—even when you know (or suspect) they’re important to attend. And then let’s find a better option for every stinking one of them.
Especially if you’re not a natural extrovert, or if you aren’t terribly practiced in the art of small talk, walking into a room of strangers can create all kinds of anxiety and tension. They often seem formulaic to the point of being comical, just without the funny ha-ha part. And this typically nets out to a fairly unenjoyable, stressful, and overtly corporate-feeling session.
A Better Option: Have you heard the news? Many, many professional groups (both the formal ones and informal ones) are realizing that we humans actually enjoy mixing business with pleasure when it comes to networking–especially when doing so lowers our stress levels while still enabling us to meet influential people, gather information that may be beneficial to our careers, or grow professionally.
If you cringe at the thought of the “traditional networking mixer,” consider heading over to Meetup.com or LinkedIn groups to see if you can find events in your area that pertain to your area of expertise or professional interest while combining a social or recreational element.
In the Portland market alone, you’ll find gatherings like these: Coffee & Copy (a gathering for writers), Wonder Women in Business, and a Tech + Pong hangout (for developers and other IT people). There are hundreds of these types of events, in pretty much every urban market. Go find a couple that suit you.
Here’s the thing: We’re all afraid to approach people we don’t know, just at varying levels of terror. It’s human nature to fear rejection or looking awkward or stupid, it really is. And networking events are often just teeming with scary strangers that we dread approaching.
Given this, a lot of us tend to completely underperform in these environments. We go through the motions and survive, but we end the evening with very little to show for the agony we’ve just endured. And that’s not at all what our goal is here.
The Better Option: First, recognize that we’re all scared. All of us. That may ease your feelings of “I’m all alone in this.” Next, if the event has genuine potential (and, really, most of them do), try constructing a game plan in advance, which will make it less intimidating to walk in the doors and approach new people. Consider bringing someone who’s a natural connector, or who knows a lot of people in your industry. And ask that person to make introductions on your behalf.
(See? Less terrifying already.)
Or, you might create a game out the entire event. Challenge yourself to see how many people you can meet or what specific goals you can achieve before the end of the evening. And, if you can get your hands on an attendee list in advance, be sure and do so. This will make pre-planning much easier, as you will know who your “target connections” are beforehand.
The events I most despise are the ones in which everyone just stands around shoving their cards at one another while trying to juggle appetizers, cocktails, and handshakes. I often feel like I’m in some bad 1991 movie scene, one that’s overtly making fun of how corny and fake so many of these professional mixers are.
Seriously, does anyone ever forge genuine, lasting connections in these awful environments? I probably can’t say, because I’ve admittedly exited stage left in the middle of many of these types of deals before even giving them a chance.
A Better Option: If the fakeness of “classic networking” really doesn’t work for you, choose non-networking networking opportunities. This isn’t an oxymoron at all. Sleuth out (and get your rear end over to) events that allow you to actually contribute, do, or achieve something while you meet like-minded people.
Raise your hand to volunteer at an event or for a cause tied to your area of expertise or interest. Organize a fitness group or book club specifically designed for people in your field. Join a committee within your own company, with the specific intent to get to know new people within the organization. You get the theme here.
I’m absolutely not one of those people who says (in a judging tone), “It’s never that you have no time, it’s that you choose to not make the time.” Oh, God, spare us all. Hi, I’m a married business owner with multiple children—who are in multiple extracurricular activities. I actually “get” what it is to have almost no extra time to be flitting about town talking shop over mediocre wine.
However, I also actually “get” how important it is to forge and maintain strong professional relationships throughout one’s career. I have personally and professionally benefitted (over and over again) from having a supportive and influential network of people around me (and hope I’m helpful to them as well!)
So what happens if you’re someone with so many demands on your time that physically attending networking events is nearly impossible?
A Better Option: I’ve got two words for you: social media. No matter how good (or not good) you are at it or how much you like (or dislike) it, you’ll need to harness the power of these platforms as a solid alternative to participating at live events. Your specific strategy should be customized to your own needs, personality, and comfort level with various platforms, but you absolutely must leverage networking tools like LinkedIn, Twitter chats, and Facebook Live events (to name a few) if you’re not able to attend face-to-face gatherings.
Blipping off the radar entirely may feel more safe and comfortable, but you’re shortchanging yourself (and may cause yourself a lot of unnecessary stress when you need support from others) in the long run. Business is built around relationships. It is truly who you know in many, many instances.
So even if you abhor the idea of networking, try your darndest to find survivable (and maybe even enjoyable) ways to stay connected with influencers around you.
And for sure have a firm handshake.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.