When was the last time you find yourself in a large event space, exchanging introductions, shaking hands, and learning more about your new acquaintances? For all of us, it feels like a long time coming since our last networking event. And while technological advances have yet to introduce holograms as an alternative to physical meetings, events following social distancing guidelines are gradually increasing.
While online networking activities do appear to be complementary in our new normal, meeting in informal physical settings is still considered the single most important source of support.
A research, “Informal Innovation: Entrepreneurship and Informal Communities“, released in 2016 by the Economist Intelligence Unit, provides details that for 78% of Startups, networking is vital to entrepreneurial success. Federico Guerrini, contributor of the Forbes Article quotes, ‘As everyday experience might have already suggested: informal professional networks and communities are more important for entrepreneurial success than formal structures such as incubators and accelerators. ‘
A mere 2 weeks ago, I had my first in-person meeting with an investor in an office setting. It was a strange experience, having been accustomed to ZOOM and Google Hangouts for weeks, the transition from virtual chats to physical setting felt unnerving at first. What used to be comfortably easy – such as maintaining eye contact while discussing business strategies, now feels intensely intimate, almost at the border of being anxious-like.
Now, I’m not assuming that everyone experiences it the same way, but these few tips might help towards rethinking and retooling yourself, when transitioning towards networking again in the flesh.
Before you head into your next social event, spend a few minutes thinking about your end goal. Going into a networking event with no plan is a recipe for disappointment. Determine what kind of people you’ll like to meet, and what you’ll like to discuss. Have a few questions ready to ask new people, such as ‘Did you discover anything interesting from working from home?’ or “How did you get started with your career?”. Also think about what you’ll like to share about yourself and of your business.
Remember back in virtual conference meetings, where one person talks and others have to listen? Back in real life, instead of square collages framing heads on our screens, we have a million other background distractions. Maintain eye contact and focus on your new acquaintance, and listen. True listening is rare, which is why we value it so much. Treat the person in front of you as if they will leave a reference on your LinkedIn Profile Page — be curious, be present, and be patient.
Take It Easy
Relax! You’ve been working from home for a long time. It’s totally understandable if approaching even one person makes you anxious. Some of us may experience the frustration of having approached many, yet feeling like our goal has not been reached.
If you ever start feeling this way, go back to reflecting on what you had set yourself up to accomplish in the first place. From the big picture, zoom in on one thing you can do – for example, meeting 1 meaningful connection that suits you and will be productive in the long run. Remember to set reasonable expectations that play up your strengths.
Compassion is a process of connecting by identifying with another person. During the pandemic we have shown our best sides by identifying with others through compassion, leading to increased motivation and strength to pull through the hard times together.
Think of networking as an extension of this practice. While some of us have the fortune to attend networking events with a friend, others might be doing it alone for the first time, in a new environment, and with new insecurities. If you ever come across someone who seem anxious talking to strangers in an event, the best thing to do is to show compassion.
As C.S. Lewis said, true humility is “not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.”
Breath and Smile
Do this while reading: take a deep breath and count slowly 1, 2, 3. Notice the pause at the end of your inhale. breath out and count slowly 3, 2, 1.
How do you feel now? When we get anxious or angry, our body tend to subconsciously take quick, shallow breaths. This in turn sends a message to our brain, causing a positive feedback loop reinforcing the fight-or-flight response. By taking long, deep calming breaths, we are able to calm ourselves down and relax.
Smiling needs no convincing. It is a universal sign of happiness, and makes one approachable, confident and sets a good first impression to someone. Paying attention to not only our facial expressions, but also our whole body language, will help future business prospects feel optimistic about who we are as a person.
So breath, smile, and look as warm and casual as you can—it’ll open the door for someone to walk up to you and start the conversation.
Ultimately, the physical sense of being with people and being part of a community can’t be replaced by technology. A great many may be edgy about networking again in a world that has changed so much in so short a time, and it is OK to say it when things feel uncomfortable. If there is anything that everyone can relate to, this is it.