How to work a room: No-fail networking tips

Feel a bit of dread at networking events? These tips and mental tricks will help you work a room like a pro
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Welcome, everyone, to the highly anticipated gathering of People Who Might Offer You a Job, where the right connection could reshape your career and change your life forever. If you play your cards right, that is. No pressure! 

Feeling nervous yet? For many people, any networking event – from conferences to casual meet-ups – can trigger nerves or feelings of discomfort. The stakes can feel even higher for job seekers who hope to make the right connections that lead to new career opportunities. For introverts, such events may seem downright unappetizing, until you learn how to work your strengths.

[ Don’t tick off your network. Read Job hunt etiquette: Networking do’s and don’ts. ]

We’ve put together an action plan of tips for before, during, and after events that will empower you to work the room like a pro. Let’s dig in. 

Before the event

A little preparation before a networking event can turn the butterflies of anxiety into flutters of excitement. Rather than going into a networking event cold, make sure you are prepared to strike up a conversation with anyone – and sell yourself when the time is right. 

“Before any event, identify and practice several areas of interest that you are willing to discuss. Think of current events, hobbies, companies you like, or trade publications that you read,” says Jayne Mattson, senior vice president of Keystone Associates.

Mattson recommends that you create a personal plan by asking yourself key questions about professional needs. Before going into one-on-one interactions at a networking event, she says, you can consider:

  • What you want to stop doing in your career because it’s no longer working for you
  • What you want to start doing because it plays to your strengths
  • What skills you want to continue developing 

You can also ease some of the event discomfort by fact-finding in advance on event sites and social media, notes Brett Ellis, career coach and executive director of Brett Ellis Career Marketing Services

“Research event organizers, panel members, speakers, etc., on LinkedIn and become familiar with their work and background,” says Ellis. “This makes approaching them much easier because you already have things to talk about with them.”

Acknowledging that introverts might have a harder time walking up to a speaker after a panel, Ellis suggests doing the same research on other attendees when possible. “You can even make an e-introduction before the event so you aren’t a complete stranger in person.”

[ Read also: Networking for introverts: 6 practical tips. ]

During the event

Working a room at a networking event is an art. Try these tips, and you’ll get better with each event you attend. 

Pretend that you’re the gathering’s host – responsible for welcoming guests.

1. Flip your mindset: Pretend that you are the host of the event, suggests Samuel Johns, hiring manager and career advisor at Resume Genius. “At networking events, it can be easy to let yourself fade into the background and wait for other people to approach you. Instead, imagine that you’re the host. Applying this mindset is transformational, making you feel like you’re responsible for welcoming guests and putting them at ease. For job hunters, this is an effective means of maximizing the number of potential employers you connect with.” 

2. Challenge yourself: The only way to improve networking skills is through practice. Make a game of it, advises Mattson. “Think about how you can challenge yourself to step out of your comfort zone just a little bit. For example, go for the first two people you don’t know, and add one more during every event,” she says.

3. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes: Many people feel uncomfortable approaching someone they don’t know, notes Keith Rollag, Babson College professor and dean of Franklin W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College. Be mindful of this when you want to talk to someone at an event. “If the roles were reversed and you were the one being approached, how would you feel? Would you be annoyed or would you welcome the interaction and conversation? If you’d be comfortable, then assume they’d be comfortable too, and go for it.”

4. Practice your listening skills: Looking for someone specific at an event? Scanning badges for the company you want to work for? That’s fine, but when you are talking to someone, stay focused on them, says Mattson. “During the event, give the speaker your undivided attention – no wandering eyes or looking over their shoulder,” she says. “Show that you are listening through your own body language and gestures to convey attention.”

“Approaching a pair can be less intimidating.”

5. Approach pairs of people: If you see a pair of people at a networking event, go over and introduce yourself, says Johns. “Approaching a pair can be less intimidating since they either already know each other or have themselves just met and would welcome someone else willing to contribute to the conversation,” he says. “Plus, it’s easier to make a personal connection than it would be when approaching a large group, where an ongoing discussion will probably be taking place.”

6. Focus on learning: If you are antsy about what to say next, or concerned about what the other person thinks of you, conversations will suffer. Instead, try to stay solely focused on what you can learn. “If you want to make a good first impression, be friendly, humble, and a good listener,” says Rollag. “If it’s a potentially a critical connection, let them drive the conversation, but look for opportunities to talk a little bit about yourself and your goals. You’ll find it easier to network if you approach it as an opportunity to learn new things about other people instead of seeing it as a litmus test of your interpersonal skills.”

Try to learn what they like to do in the city. Recommend music venues, restaurants, or upcoming events.

7. Strive for a balance of confidence and humility: To do this, Ellis recommends doing two things in every interaction you have: Find a way to add value, and ask for advice. “If you have a particular skill set, you can offer that,” says Ellis. “For example, when I attend events, I often offer to help people with LinkedIn or other job search strategies. I also have articles and how-to guides that I can offer for free. If you don’t feel like you have any strong skillsets, rely on your knowledge of more personal things. You can try to learn what they like to do in the city. I often recommend live music venues, restaurants, or upcoming events if I don't feel like my work is helpful to them. If you give them something of value that they can take away from the conversation, it will make you more likable and memorable.”

Asking for advice shows humility, Ellis adds. “This may give you insight on how to land a job at their company or in their industry. This is often information you can’t find online,” he says. “The combination of confidence and humility is great during a job search. After doing both of these things, it’s a good time for you to move on to the next person.”

8. Don’t get discouraged: Even seasoned networkers have awkward run-ins and encounters from time to time. It’s inevitable – so don’t let it throw you for a loop, says Rollag. “See it as a numbers game. It’s inevitable you’ll have some awkward or flat conversations. The significance of those conversations drops exponentially as you push past them and network with more people.”

For a post-event follow-up strategy, keep reading:

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.