The very idea of being in a room full of strangers with the aim of ‘networking’ and building new business relationships is quite enough to make most people feel uneasy.
‘Working the room’ and ‘making connections’ can seem like a daunting task, especially when you throw in self-doubt that can creep in when you feel under pressure in a new social scenario.
Meeting like-minded people can be hugely beneficial for your career however, especially if you’re looking to climb the ladder, launch your own business or explore a new field.
So how do you ‘work the room’ without the awkwardness that often comes with meet-and-greets?
Simona Barbieri, founder of revolutionary networking community Hub Dot, says it’s all about levelling the playing field in your mind, and just being brave enough to say ‘hello’. Here she shares her top tips to help you network like a pro and make meaningful connections that’ll help in your work life and beyond.
Ditch the labels
At Hub Dot networking events, we encourage women to shake off their labels, tags, positions and categories, because that is often what makes people most nervous. There’s an element of something overly formal about that. Instead we have everyone wear a dot symbolising why they’re attending, be it inspiration, socialising, help with developing ideas, and encourage everyone to engage by sharing their stories. Whether you’re at a Hub Dot event or not, it’s important to go into a networking event with that same approach, as it really levels the playing field. Go with an open mind, share and listen to stories rather than asking about professional labels, and you’ll start building genuine relationships and connections.
Bring your whole self
We all wear lots of different hats, from accountant to mum, we are multiple things, so be prepared to bring your whole self to networking. Be prepared to say, ‘I am an accountant, I’ve have a child, I love nature’ - don’t just bring the professional version of you. Once you break through those superficial layers, you’ll find you engage with people in a far better way.
Be brave and branch out
We have a house-rule at Hub Dot, which is that you should never stay and chat with the people you arrived with, or with friends of friends that you already know. When you’re at an event, be brave and work the room. Say hello to people you’ve never met before. Almost everyone will be nervous, it’s not just you.
What’s the worst that could happen?
If you’re feeling nervous, just think, ‘what could happen that’s so terrible?’ Yes, somebody could be unfriendly, and yes you could feel a bit rejected, but so what? You’ll move on, knowing that you tried. Having children really helped me view things in this way. Children need to make friends in the playground all the time, networking is a lot like that, but we’re all grown-ups now.
Networking without awkwardness: putting theory into practice
After a one-to-one coaching session with our networking expert Simona Barbieri, Stylist's Jenny Tregoning went out into the field to put the tips into practice. Here's how she got on...
There are plenty of things I’d rather be doing on a Sunday afternoon than walking into a room full of strangers for the purpose of networking (renewing the car insurance, alphabetising my paperbacks – hoovering, even).
But for this month’s Year of You theme, I was tasked with learning how to network without awkwardness (or at least slightly less awkwardly) then putting my new-found skills to the test.
My coach was Simona Barbieri, founder of women’s networking community Hub Dot. The idea behind Hub Dot is that each attendee has a coloured sticker representing why they are there (to share expertise, to ask for help with an idea, to find inspiration) and women are encouraged to tell their stories, rather than be restricted by job titles or labels.
Simona’s first tip was to do something that makes you feel happy and confident before going into a networking event, to set you off on the right foot – put on your best lipstick, call a friend for a chat, read your favourite poem, or even sing (though I'm not sure how well that would have gone down on a packed train).
I chose to listen to my ‘happy’ playlist, though as I haven't updated my iPod since about 2009, it made me more nostalgic than upbeat. Nevertheless, it buoyed me enough to stride confidently through the door and get started.
I should mention at this point that Hub Dot like to choose unusual locations for their events, so this one took place at Bhuti, a new health and wellbeing centre in Richmond. This meant shoes off at the door (thank goodness I put decent socks on), cucumber water (no alcohol to lubricate conversation here) and calming, zen-like spaces to roam around in (Namaste).
Walking into a room where everyone is already deep in conversation is daunting but I soon got chatting to a woman named Carey (Simona’s tip: if you need to break into a circle, be brave and voice any awkwardness). One of Simona’s other key bits of advice is to do your research before the event. Find out who is going to be there, know who you want to talk to and come armed with plenty of things to talk about.
It turned out that Carey ran her own business making superfood chocolates and, as I write about food for Stylist, we found common ground straight away and later exchanged cards – so far, so successful.
Next, we moved upstairs into the yoga studio for talks which provided a welcome break (no talking for all of half an hour) and it was fascinating hearing from such a diverse group of women. After the talks, it was back in networking mode. Trying to break into an existing chat is tricky but I noticed other people were similarly nervous, so I followed Simona’s advice to keep smiling and try and put others at ease. It worked and I got into a good chat with a woman called Helena and found out that she worked in a similar industry to me and that we even had friends in common.
I still don't think I'm ever going to enjoy networking, but I certainly feel better equipped to get the most out of it. And the one bit of advice from Simona that will stick with me is to be honest and voice any awkwardness. It’s better to just say sorry for interrupting if there's someone you really want to introduce yourself to, or being honest and saying that you came to meet as many people as possible than get stuck talking to the same person all night.
Be honest, be brave and be open – you never know what might come of it.