How To Build Your Network Without Having a Panic Attack

That time you saw me at that thing? I was screaming on the inside.

There are sooo many things that terrify me about networking events. I agonize over the best way to approach people, and then wuss out and don’t approach anyone. I assume that, when people see me cowering in the corner alone, they instantly know I’m lame. I worry that my obvious social awkwardness is turning off anyone I happen to be speaking with. I berate myself for being so completely boring.

I’m an introvert. Extended social interactions exhaust me and, after awhile, I hit a wall. I also have social anxiety. Drinking helps. My shrink has suggested pot. My Xanax just puts me to sleep.

But taking networking from online to in-the-flesh is SO IMPORTANT. It can solidify a relationship that you’ve developed online, or lead to new, promising connections. Also? Despite the fact that y’all terrify me so damn much, I love meeting new people and forging new connections. It’s just so gratifying to connect with someone who shares my interests… who can act as a sounding board… who I can swap tips and war stories with. And maintaining those relationships can be key in moving a career forward. The bulk of the work that comes to me nowadays is thanks to people I’ve worked with in the past, or people I BS with on Twitter, or people I’ve met at this or that networking event, thanks to several large glasses of wine.

I want you guys to have that, too.

Back in 2010, Marian Schembari and I planned the very first Word Nerd Networking event — a speed networking event for publishing professionals, freelance writers, and other word nerds.

Much like speed dating, the structured format of the first hour took away the pressure inherent in typical networking events, and allowed interested parties to connect with established freelance writers and authors, book agents, magazine editors, and other media makers. This was followed by two hours of casual mingling, during which attendees were able to build upon the connections they initially sparked with our panel of experts.

Before the event, I shared tips for surviving ANY networking event without a panic attack:

1. Clarify your reason for attending the event, and set up some clear goals. This can give you something to talk about (if your goal, for example, is to learn more about putting together a book proposal), and can also act as a motivator (if your goal, for example, is to swap business cards with at least three people).

2. Develop your elevator pitch. Basically, figure out beforehand how you plan on responding to that seemingly simple question: What do you do? That way, you won’t end up stumbling all over your words (as I typically do, because I’m a spaz). Depending upon the mix of services you offer, your response to this question could possibly change for each networking event you attend. It all depends upon what you’d like to achieve with your networking efforts, and what you’d like to convey to those in attendance.

3. Do some research on the attendees beforehand, if you can. That way, you can prepare for the event in much the same way you’d prepare for a job interview or informational interview: Draw up a list of questions specific to the people you’ll be speaking with.

4. Dress your best. And not only because you want to make a good impression, but also because looking fabulous can make you feel fabulous, and infinitely more confident.

5. Bring a wingman… someone who can keep you from cowering in the corner, and perhaps also pull you into conversations against your will. It can help to choose someone who’s more outgoing than you… someone who feels no compunction about dropping into a conversation mid-stream and taking over. Be careful not to use your wingman as a crutch, though. It won’t help either of you if you end up talking to no one but each other.

6. Drink at least one massive glass of wine. Or maybe that’s just me.

7. Make eye contact with the people around you, and be all smiles. This will make it easier to initiate conversation naturally. Keep in mind that everyone else at the event is just as nervous and self-conscious as you are, and eager to meet new people. Why else would they even be there? Plus, smiling is magic. Just the simple act of smiling can boost your energy and make you feel more confident.

8. Think like a journalist. What does this mean? Basically, ask lots of questions. People looove talking about themselves! Mostly because it’s a topic they’re absolute experts on. And if you continue asking probing, open-ended questions, followed by additional invitations to elaborate, the conversation will flow. And eventually, the person you’re chatting with will (probably… hopefully…) return the favor.

9. Remember to close the deal.  Mention that you’d love to chat more about BLAH BLAH BLAH sometime, or offer to send along some additional info on the latest BLAH BLAH BLAH. Oh, and also? You totally just read a fascinating article about BLAH BLAH BLAH the other day, and you’d just love to send it along! Let’s swap contact info!

10. Finally, don’t feel bad about leaving early. This is an issue that introverts grapple with the most. As I mentioned above, after a certain point, introverts just hit a wall. After which they’re completely useless. So network like hell while your energy is high and, when you feel it ebbing, don’t feel bad about bowing out early. You can even say you have something else to go to, or a bus to catch, or a sweet, sweet date with your pillow-top mattress to attend. Whatevs. People will understand.

Ooh! Bonus Tip! Do follow up with all those fabulous contacts you made within the next week. Meeting people is only the first step. Maintaining that relationship is the clincher.

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