Debrett's Ask the Expert: How can I get over my fear of networking?

Debrett's: Ask the Expert
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Don't leave your hands full, or you'll struggle to make introductions (Source: Getty)

Q: My role calls for client entertainment – usually dinners with existing clients – but I find I’m more frequently asked to attend networking events on behalf of the firm for new client acquisition. I’m fine speaking to people I know, but these “mix-and-mingle” events make me feel awkward and overly salesy. What can I do to make these events not only bearable but actually useful to my career?

Forget killer clowns, there’s nothing quite as terrifying as a room full of unfamiliar faces. Whether it’s a conference, a drinks reception or a power breakfast, many of us encounter situations in which we’re encouraged to mix with new people for business purposes.

Adding to the pressure, managers often expect employees’ networking efforts to result in new clients or information on a business, giving the firm an advantage over its competitors.

While we’re becoming ever more adept at networking online – adding a new contact on LinkedIn on the basis of a single phone call, or conducting a lengthy email conversation with someone we’ve never met – neither compares with face-to-face encounters to establish immediate rapport.

To network like a pro and ease your anxiety, stop thinking of these events as a sales pitch: no used car, off-putting, showroom-style approach. Viewing networking events simply as opportunities to meet new people will ensure you relax and converse more naturally. Provided you’re able to exchange contact information, you can follow up with a more direct, “salesy” approach afterwards.

The most daunting moment is often when we first enter a room, so consider the impression you’re making with your arrival: relax, be confident and smile, rather than walking in with your head down or freezing like a deer in headlights.

Read more: Yes, be polite to the receptionist. But it's no reason to give you a job

Don’t be tempted to make a beeline for the first person you spot standing on his or her own. You may find yourself trapped in a conference of two, unable to move on and speak to others because you’re reluctant to leave the other person stranded.

Instead, get your bearings and help yourself to food and drink if you want: you may naturally fall into conversation in the queue for coffee. Try to avoid having your hands full of cup and saucer, or glass and plate, however: you’ll need to be able to shake hands on introducing yourself.

If you’re approaching a group, simply standing at the edge with a smile should ensure that others step aside to include you, but avoid barging in and interrupting. Some events may include name badges, but maintain eye contact and introduce yourself rather than peering at the other person’s badge to establish his or her name.

Many of us baulk at the prospect of having to make small talk, but asking plenty of questions is a simple way of demonstrating interest and putting others at ease. Learning more about the other person may also support a proposal or pitch further down the line.

Read more: Making small talk wins you the best business deals

If you need to bring a conversation to a close and move on, excuse yourself by saying something like, “I wish we could continue this conversation, but I suppose we’d better mingle”. Ensure you have business cards to hand so that you’re not keeping someone waiting while you rummage through a bag or dig in a jacket pocket. Follow up with any contacts promptly – usually within a day or two – to ensure the encounter is still fresh in the other person’s mind.

Finally, keep accepting those invitations: with practice, you may find networking not only bearable, but enjoyable.

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