So you’ve been invited to a networking event. You pull on your jacket, spruce up in the mirror, walk into the room, and freeze…
A sea of suits meets your eyes and you glance around the room, anxiety rising, trying to locate a familiar face. Nobody. You start to feel hot and uncomfortable. Do I look awkward standing at the edge of the room like this? A bead of sweat rolls down your forehead. Why isn’t the bloody aircon on?
Now, I know this isn’t a problem for everyone. Some people will effortlessly work the room, laughing out loud and telling anyone who will listen about the “great little place” they found to eat last weekend. But, if your palms are feeling sweaty at the very thought of all those handshakes, please read on.
Step 1: Do your research
Before you’re ready to schmooze, you must do your research. For trainees and junior lawyers, it can often feel like we don’t bring much to the party: you’ve been invited to an event to make up numbers and you have no reason to be there except to appease the partner who invited you. You’re on the back foot from the start. However, you can combat this mentality by asking yourself these simple questions (you’ll be surprised how many people do not):
- What is the event? (Is it a training session? A conference? What is it about? Why is it taking place?)
- Who is attending? (You don’t need a list of names. Just ask yourself what type of people will be there: which clients? In-house lawyers? People from industry? Other lawyers from your firm?)
- What is your relationship to the people attending? (Have you done any work for them?)
You’ll end up with something like this: [my firm] is [hosting data protection training to cover recent legal updates] and we have invited [the in-house legal team] from [insert important client] to our offices. [They are on a lunch break before an afternoon session, and as a trainee in the commercial team, which does a lot of work for them,] I am going down to say hello.
And just like that, you’ve legitimized your presence at the event. Can you feel your confidence growing? What’s more, I can already sense the conversation flowing from this information (see step 5 (Talk the talk)), and you’ve not even left your desk.
Step 2: Arrive early
This is simple. Arrive at the event early (if you can). You’ll feel less overwhelmed and it will facilitate step 4 (the Approach).
Step 3: Get yourself a drink
A glass is a great prop. It makes you look more relaxed and prevents awkward-hands syndrome. Fidgety hands are far too common in the networking room and I dread to think of the internal struggle – shall I put my hands in my pockets? Or keep them out? Maybe just one in my pocket? But oh shit, what about this one? I know, I’ll lean on this table. Should my palm be open? Or shall I clench my fist? Shit, where am I going to put it now? Back in the pocket. Yes, they’re safe in there.
At best you’ll look anxious, at worst slightly unhinged. Neither is ideal. With a glass in one hand, the other is much more manageable. Do not attempt to hold a glass in each hand (dual wielding) – they hated that at my last job.
Whilst a drink is fine, I’d advise against (too much) food. Sure, have a nibble on the crisps and light bites but don’t help yourself to that plate of lasagne. It’s a logistical nightmare. How on earth do you expect to shake hands whilst gorging on those complex carbs?
A walk to the bar is a great way to ease yourself into your surroundings and it’ll give you an immediate sense of purpose. One beer please.
Step 4: The Approach
So you’ve got your drink, but still you’ve not spotted anyone you know. What are you going to do now? Stand and wait for someone to come to you? Pull out your phone to re-read texts from friends? No. It’s time to mingle. But who should you approach?
The Lone Ranger
You’ll spot them shuffling awkwardly around the edges like you are. They may also be pretending to use their phone. They are either a: (i) late arrival; (ii) social recluse; or, (iii) deranged killer stalking their next victim. Whatever the case, get yourself over there. It can’t be worse than spending another ten minutes sipping on that lonely drink, fighting back tears, and trying to remind yourself that you’ve got friends in the real world. A lone ranger is by far the easiest person to approach. They’ll be grateful for the company. Of course, they may be alone for a reason: any racial jokes or questions about sexual experiences are your cue to leave. Don’t worry, there are still options below.
The Open Couple
These two are a great find. You’ll spot them in the centre of the room talking to each other, but their body language is screaming for a threesome. You’ll notice how they are both angled away from each other, forming an inviting V shape, inviting lone rangers like yourself to come and join. Chances are they’re colleagues from work taking on the session together. You’re set for a few minutes of effortless chatter with these guys. Three is not a crowd.
Note: not to be mistaken with the Closed Couple (see below).
The Groupies (3+)
Right, here we are. It all boils down to this. You’ve scoured the room and there are no lone rangers to pick off. No open couples to welcome you with a warm embrace. It’s time to approach a group.
There are two ways to approach a group, (i) the hovering fly or (ii) the bull in a china shop. One of them is correct.
Often you will see people adopting the hovering fly (and I don’t blame them!). It works something like this: Joe is standing nervously outside a large group, lurking behind somebody’s shoulder, and he starts to creep in. Pushing himself carefully between people to find his place, he begins to smile and exclaim in tune with the group until eventually he is laughing along with their jokes (and nobody’s even noticed his intrusion – smooth). His big moment comes and he finally makes a comment, probably something like “yeah I’ve noticed that!” tagged onto the back of another conversation. Nobody pays attention, but still he smiles to himself: you’re safe now Joe, you’re safe.
Is this a success? No. I’m sure we’ve all seen (and probably done) a hovering fly and it truly is uncomfortable viewing. That awkward shuffle… the apologetic smile… and the hesitant first sentence, delivered with less conviction than Jeremy Clarkson hosting a GreenPeace rally.
Is that how you want to portray yourself? Are you really that sorry for inflicting your presence on the rest of the room? No. And if you are, you shouldn’t be.
And that’s why you approach this like a bull (in a china shop). The bull approach requires you to make yourself known. The china shop analogy is an exaggeration, and ideally there shouldn’t be any broken glasses, but what I’m saying is that a super-smooth entry into a group is rare. You’re not James Bond. You’re not going to whisper a cheeky innuendo into someone’s ear to break the circle (honestly don’t). Nor will you drop a one-liner and reduce the group to stitches of laughter. It’s going to get a bit messy.
Be bold. You’re here to “network” after all. And remember, so is everyone else. You shouldn’t be afraid to introduce yourself to anyone in the room.
Admittedly, the group is a tricky one. You have to jostle to gain entry. But what are the alternatives? Stand on your own? Go home? Be an apologetic fly? Think about how you want to be perceived.
I know my answer. And that’s why I’m walking towards the group in the middle of the room. So how do I “barge in”? There is no single right answer, but there is one thing that every right answer has in common. Be assured. Don’t flit around – if you’re going in, you’re going in. It’s like pulling out of a junction into traffic. You need to move slowly but purposefully. Block the other lane for a few seconds if you have to, but don’t be hesitant, and don’t be hasty – you’ll cause an accident.
I walk purposefully towards the group, making eye contact with somebody facing towards me. I stretch out a confident hand, pushing past someone (gently) if necessary, and offer my introduction. It would usually go something like this:
“Hi, Justin, pleased to meet you.” (look around the group with a smile and offer them a “hi”) “Sorry to interrupt, do you mind if I join?” Cue minutes of wonderful conversation.
The Closed Couple
These two are the worst to approach. Do so at your peril. They have found some great common ground and do not want to be disturbed. Look how closely they are standing together. Expect awkwardness if you ruin their moment. I’d go for all the above before even thinking about approaching a closed couple – and you are at a pretty bizarre networking event if closed couples are your only option.
Step 5: Talk the Talk
I’m going to leave this section quite short, but make sure to look out for my upcoming post- “The Networking Script – What not to say”. For the time being, do you remember your research at step 1? Well, now it delivers the goods. The answers to your research can form your opening questions: “What did you think of the training session?” “How was the conference” “Do your team do this sort of thing a lot?” Beautiful, pre-prepared small-talk.
After you’ve broken the ice, just remember one thing: the question is king. Nobody wants to hear about the length of your commute or your desire to move house. Throw a few interested questions out there and let the good times roll – “How long have you been at the company? What’s your role exactly? Oh that’s interesting, how did you get into that?” It’s as easy as that.