We’ve all been there – at least up to two years ago – walking into a room full of people, knowing nobody, searching for a familiar face, feeling vulnerable, writes executive coach James Sweetman. We will, soon again, go to conferences and workshops to learn and to network, but to maximise the experience we have to find a way to move through that feeling of awkwardness that sits on the edge of our comfort zones. 


Here are 10 practical networking tips that will also help you manage that uncomfortable feeling of heightened self-consciousness.

1) Have a plan of action

Define in advance what a successful conference experience would look like to you. What would be the evidence of your success? Business cards collected, insightful learning noted, quality conversations, leads generated. How will you know if you are on the right track if you don’t know your destination?

2) You are not alone!

If you are attending alone, many others will be too. Don’t wait to be approached, approach others. Have the intention to actively introduce yourself. Set yourself a target of introducing yourself to five or 10 people over the course of the event. Remember you are not there to chat with your friends or existing acquaintances, it is a time for developing new contacts.

3) It’s a learning opportunity

At a conference you will pick up tips and insights from the speakers, but you will also learn from the people you connect with. In addition, the zone immediately outside your comfort zone is your learning zone. Comfort zone is bordered by worry and anxiousness, but beyond it is the great blue ocean of opportunity and potential. That feeling of worry and self-consciousness is also a growing pain, a signal that there is a learning opportunity available to you.

4) Do your homework

  • Check out who else might be attending the event.
  • Scan the websites of the speakers and event organisers.
  • If there are workshops or break-out sessions running concurrently, decide which ones you will attend.
  • Stock up on your business cards and remember to bring them with you.
  • Have a pen and paper for capturing your learning (a blunt pencil is always better than a sharp mind!) and for noting the contact details of others who may not have planned as well and left their business cards at home.

Network like a pro

5) Pre-plan your conversation opener

Questions are how we start conversations. Questions are how we show interest in others. Questions also turn monologues into dialogues. So have a few conversation openers in your back pocket and endeavour to start on common ground, that’s how we build rapport.
‘Hi I’m (name) do you mind if I join you?’
‘What do you think of the event so far?’
‘Who’s been your favourite speaker?’
‘Did you attend in previous years?’
If your friendliness is not reciprocated (99.9% of the time it will be) move on (see 9 below.)

6) Hone your ‘elevator speech’

In the midst of the chitchat you will ask and be asked variations of ‘What do you do? Where are you based? What line of business are you in?’ Rather than stating the title on your business card try out some alternative responses that are centred on the benefits of your work.

For example, I work with people who, …… I work with companies that……Observe which response on your part gets the most traction. Remember potential clients are only interested in what you can do for them, so it makes sense to focus on benefits up front, rather than a job title that can be open to misinterpretation.

7) It’s not really about you, it’s about them

When chatting with somebody, give them your full attention, don’t look around as if waiting for somebody more interesting to come along, don’t check your phone either, that’s just basic manners. If you do have to stay vigilant or check your phone, be upfront about it.

Have your business cards ready, but rather than shoving them into people’s hands ask for their card first. Remember it’s not about being pushy (if you’re pushy the other person is resisting!) It’s about making a connection and laying the foundation to develop a relationship, or agreeing to connect again.

8) Use people’s names

When you offer your name, people will respond with theirs. Use people’s names when you are talking with them – it helps to remember them. In addition, our names are the symbols of our identity, so using my name implies you care about me. (That’s why it grates when somebody calls us the wrong name or mispronounces it.)

9) Strategies for moving on

If you’ve set yourself the target of connecting with a certain number of new people you may need to have a strategy for closing a conversation. Most networking will happen during breaks, so an easy one is – ‘excuse me I want to grab a coffee, or I want to visit the bathroom’.

10) Follow-Up

After the event there is a window of opportunity that lasts no more than 48 hours. You can reach out via email to acknowledge that it was nice to connect. Unless the other person requested that you forward promotional material about your business refrain from doing so.

It is about establishing the relationship first. As the saying goes sales is a contact sport, but not in the sense of pushiness or over-reaching. If you have connected in person, connect online as well – LinkedIn, Twitter etc.

Today, the adage ‘be interested (in others) and be interesting’ is most commonly applied to social media. Networking is the social media without the media, and the same principle applies. When our focus shifts to others, the self in self-consciousness quickly dissolves. 

Author: James Sweetman is a motivational speaker and executive coach focusing on leadership, presentation skills and personal development. He is also the author of five books. More information is available at www.jamessweetman.com