Networking. The thought of it used to give me anxiety.
Going to a conference, industry gathering, or debate on the real-life applications of blockchain is the easy bit. But it’s the bits before, between and after – the ‘networking breaks’ or the ‘meet and greets’ I tended to avoid. Being in a room full of strangers and having to essentially force yourself on them to see if you might have anything in common professionally or be able to connect in some way.
Being of a naturally quite shy disposition (and awkwardly British), my default was to think that nobody would be interested in who I was, what I did or why I was attending this breakfast briefing, lunch and learn or fireside chat....’ No matter how many ‘how to be a better networker’ or ‘top tips for working the room’ articles I read, I couldn’t shake the awkwardness.
But I got tired of going along to events as a passive attendee. II felt greedy for attending a panel on the future of asset management, gorging on the thought leadership and experience of the panellists and then sneaking off, laden with their juicy insights. It got increasingly frustrating that, yet again, I hadn’t been able to ask that burning question when I had the chance to my favourite journalist or taken a chance on challenging the Fintech start-up co-founder on his statement that the such-and-such company would be “the next Google” in 18 months.
So I started to put my hand up. I loitered near the coffee (or wine,) stand, and asked the nearest stranger what possessed them to forego Love Island to listen to yet another Brexit debate. I tried this at numerous events in both London and New York, where I have recently returned from secondment.
Here’s a few observations I have made, and a few tips that I have picked up for networking and attending events on both sides of the Atlantic.
Keep your opening line simple. I came to realise that I was over-commercialising networking and forgetting that it was the relationship-building piece that mattered the most, not trying to sell to people from the get-go. Focus on easy icebreakers –“what brings you here?” or “are you looking forward to hearing X speak?” to start the conversation
Seize the opportunity. If you didn’t get the chance to chime in during the Q&A, or you weren’t able to get face-time with the one person that you really wanted to catch at that conference, find a way to reach them afterwards. Could you buy them a coffee and pick their brains? Or would they mind spending five minutes on the phone with you? Tell them why you wanted to speak and emphasize that you’d like to make it happen.
Move quickly. Follow up with your new contact as soon as you can. I noticed that Americans were particularly good at this, with the follow up email or LinkedIn messaging coming before lunchtime the next day. While I always try and be quick off the mark with my follow ups, I’ve generally found that in the UK it could be anything between one day and one month before I’m either followed up with by a new contact, or they respond to my notes and want to continue any discussion.
Don’t be afraid to politely end your chat. If you get yourself into a (great) conversation, but then find it’s gone on that bit too long and there’s still three other people you want to speak to in the room, move on. Americans have taught me that a quick exchange of cards and a “it’s been great talking, here are my details, let’s keep in touch” is a slicker way of exiting a discussion than downing my orange juice and heading off for a refill.
So be an active attendee. Events aren’t going succeed without engagement. Don’t be shy. You’ll quickly realise that other people standing awkwardly will be relieved that you approached them and opened the conversation. You could come away with a new prospective client, helpful industry intel, a heads up on the latest journalist moves or a new contact for someone else within your network.
And at the very least, you’ll have met someone new and learnt something interesting, which is always time well spent.
Claire Rumbellow is now back in London after two secondments in New York. She is an Associate Director in London – also known as a Vice President in New York.