Feeling Awkward at a Networking Event? 3 Ways to Break the Ice

by Maggie Hibma

Date

September 27, 2013 at 1:00 PM

networking-icebreakersDid you know that Garth Brooks sang a song about the importance of networking?

Well, pretty much. Here's the scoop: Brooks left a relationship that wasn’t fruitful anymore, but because he has contacts all over the place, he knows he’ll be able to bounce back. And while Garth might be going through a rough breakup, he hit on a principle that we as professionals abide by: It’s all about who you know.

Our contacts help us get jobs, mentor us, and provide us with a sounding board for professional questions. But before that person ends up as a trusted connection, you have to cultivate a mutually-beneficial relationship, one that provides value to your professional life in some way or another. You know what I’m talking about, people: Networking.

If you cringed a bit at that word, it’s okay. For a lot of people, especially introverts, the thought of networking with complete strangers is about as awkward as it gets. The entire platform of networking has largely moved out of our local coffee shops and onto online sites like LinkedIn, taking the need to be physically present to cultivate relationships out of the equation. Unfortunately, that’s left some of the professional world feeling more comfortable interacting with people online than in person. But it’s important to be able to network both ways, so that you can get the most out of being in the workplace, going to industry events, and generally being able to have real-life professional conversations. There’s just something about that face-to-face conversation that can’t be replaced by a keyboard and a mouse.

So, that’s why we came up with these 3 brilliant icebreakers for in-person networking that you can use anywhere -- at work, at a conference, out to lunch with colleagues -- to really hone on in the core skills of networking. Keep these icebreakers in your back pocket for your future networking events.

The Networking Trifecta of Icebreakers

#1. “Oh, you’re from [X Company]? How did you end up there?”

No matter how good or bad you think you are at networking, you really can’t mess up with this question. At the surface, it’s a pretty standard question when getting to know someone. It’s a question the other person has undoubtedly answered before, so it won’t catch them off-guard. But for you, it’s a chance to practice a skill that many want, few have, and even fewer do well: Listening.

You know when you’re telling a story and the other person seems really into it? They’re nodding at the appropriate times, probably giving you a few “oh yeah!'s” and “really?'s”? That’s because this person is giving you their undivided attention, and it makes you feel good, maybe even really confident about whatever you’re talking about. This is what you should aim to do with every professional conversation you have. One tip from Ivan Misner, the founder and chairman of business networking organization BNI, suggests that focusing on maintaining eye contact with the person you’re interacting with will help you listen better and drown out other distractions around you. If you’re networking at a big event, you’ll need to really be able to focus to practice listening.

#2. “You know, I recently read that [insert relevant industry news here]. Have you heard about that?”

Think about your favorite blog. Maybe you read it every day, or once a week, or maybe only once a month. No matter how frequently you read it, the point is that you keep coming back to that same blog instead of choosing a similar one with the same topic. And why wouldn't you? It's your favorite. And whether you know it or not, one of the reasons it’s your go-to source on whatever the topic is because it provides value to you in some way.

If you want people to think of you, remember you, really connect with you on a personal level -- you have to provide them with some value. And there’s nothing more valuable these days than the exchange of information. If you want to be perceived as an expert in your field, you need to contribute something of value to the conversations going on in your field.

You can practice doing this in a safe place -- your workplace. Find those people you really want to make a connection with and strike up a conversation in the kitchen about the latest and greatest article you’ve read.

(Tip for HubSpot customers: It’s really easy to stay on top of industry news if you’re using Social Inbox. You can create streams of any keyword that’s relevant to your industry, or monitor a Twitter list of thought leaders.)

#3. “Hey, I’d love your opinion on [your latest project]. Do you have a minute?”

“Oh, you would?” At least, that's what I think when someone asks me for help with something that’s important to them. It makes me feel appreciated, respected, and knowledgeable. Clearly I’ve devoted some time to whatever topic they're asking me about, so it feels good to put what I know to good use.

Now that you know that, pretend you’re the person who's looking to make a connection with me. Why would you hesitate to ask my opinion or for my help on something if you know it makes me feel this way? There's no reason to. So, don't.

In the Inc.com article "Networking Tips: Go From Awkward to Awesome," author Patricia Fletcher explains that asking for someone’s advice about a topic they know well is a great way to get a conversation started and bonds formed. “It’s pretty cool,” she says, “to have your ask turn into a successful person’s thoughtful input on what they would do if they were in your shoes.” Take advantage of these successful people around you, either the ones you work with every day or thought leaders in your industry, by tapping into their knowledge and asking for help.

Don't Hesitate. Just Network.

So the next time you’re faced with the opportunity to network in-person, don’t shy away. If you can remember the networking trifecta -- listening, providing value, and asking for help -- you’ll make those uber-important trusted connections that will serve you well in your professional years to come.

And, once you've done it a few times, it'll feel more and more natural until you find yourself doing this without thinking about it. You'll be surprised how easy networking can be with a little strategy and the right tools. Because you know what? You never know when you’ll need to pull a Garth Brooks and call on some trusted connections for a little help.

Image credit: langleyo

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