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Rare beings do exist who don't mind formal networking events. (Allegedly.) For these homo-super-sapiens, walking 5 minutes late into a room of suits and indecipherable name-tags leaves them completely unaffected. Unfortunately for the anxious entrepreneur, networking events are a necessary and occasionally terror-inducing element of business.
The wonderful secret is that those homo-super-sapiens started out just as nervous as you.
And no one wants to be at a formal networking event.
No one. Not even them.
Here are some tricks to make sure you nail these events every time, because having a game-plan is a wonderful stress-buster, and once executed swiftly you can get the hell out of there and do something you would rather be doing.
Unless, reassured in your new found game-plan-induced confidence, you actually start to enjoy it!
1. REMEMBER YOUR BUSINESS CARDS!
This sounds obvious, but seriously. Nothing is more unprofessional than having to scribble your name down on the back of a Starbucks receipt.* Or worse, missing an opportunity because you can't share your details.
If you're in the situation where you are attending an event and have forgotten your cards, ring your card company and plead with them to send a sample run of your design to the event space.** The worst they can say is no.
*I definitely haven't done this.
2. STALK ATTENDEES BEFOREHAND
Use resented social media to your advantage. Know if they are into cat videos, what kind of articles they share, where they holiday, where they work, what experience they have, what kind of personality profile they fit into, etc etc.
Find out if they are someone you need on your team and then use the information collected as conversation starters when you do meet them. (Don't actually admit to stalking them, but it's sometimes comforting to ask questions you already know the answers to.)
3. HAVE A GOAL
Go into an event with a clear objective in mind. Do you need manpower? Investment? Legal advice? Once you have identified your needs, know your stuff (e.g. your share value, contracts, and other investment-related details) and what you're willing to offer/negotiate (e.g. percentage of equity you'd be willing to give away and at what price) so that when you DO have a conversation about investment or similar it will be worthwhile.
4. KNOW YOUR PITCH
You don't have to recite some monologue inspired by Death of a Salesman, but DO come equipped with a short punchy intro about who you are and what your business does.
If you don't have a business quite yet, say you're currently developing an exciting project/have an idea in the works/currently getting a project off the ground and share an exciting detail or two with your audience. Then swiftly follow up with a 'how about you?'. If they're interested in you, they'll ask.
5. LISTEN, SMILE, QUESTION, REPEAT.
I remember reading a story once which may or may not have involved Albert Einstein, about a man at an event who asked his neighbour nothing but enthusiastic questions and very little about himself. After the gentleman had left, his neighbour approached his friend and announced in awe that this man was the most interesting person he had ever met.
The moral of the story?
If you tend to worry if you are (insert-adjective-here) enough, simply ask questions. Everyone knows something you don't and everyone likes to talk about themselves. Tilt your head to one side, hold eye contact when they talk, smile, nod, and question away. They might just remember you as the most interesting person in the room.
6. KEEP THE DRINKS FLOWING
In Japanese business culture, it is considered unforgivable if you neglect to top up your counterpart's glass and it runs dry. (I hear this also custom at Cambridge formal dinners, although I doubt their motives are influenced by respectable ancient culture).
For people who don't tend to enjoy formal networking events (i.e. Everyone), a humble glass of wine can make conversation flow that bit easier and imbibe them with a kick of confidence.
If you find yourself stuck in an awkward conversation, excuse yourself to get a drink.
If you find yourself lacking in conversation, a mutual sip of wine can fill any would-be awkward silence.
If you find yourself invited to the bar by a band of high-profile individuals after the event. Go. In a still male-dominated business culture, one must accept that the best business deals often happen in the bar after the formal event has finished.
Never underestimate the power of going for a drink with someone. Order what they're ordering if you can stomach it. (DON'T get blind drunk and make inappropriate jokes, but if you can match their beer/whiskey intake you will be rewarded with fatherly respect and a raised glass).
Plus, everyone just looks cooler with a glass in their hand.
NOTE: If you'd like to veer away from alcoholism, ask the bartender for a soft drink in a martini/champagne glass and just tell everyone it's alcohol.
7. TAKE NOTES
Now that you have hopefully had an engaging conversation or two, make sure to pick up on one or two throwaway details. For example, did they mention they had a daughter who wanted to work at the UN? Are they having trouble with their builder?
Sneakily jot down any handy notes like these on their business card and use them as an email opener later.
8. FOLLOW UP
Armed with your notes, a follow up email should be pretty simple. It's a great way to initiate further discussion after an event before you get lost in a sea of faces and business cards.
Open with something tailored to them. For example, 'I recall you mentioning your daughter wanted to work at the UN, I just came across this internship opportunity and thought of you...'/'I hope you don't have much more trouble with your builder! If you would like to escape the chaos some time, perhaps we could meet for coffee to discuss...?'
And don't forget to say it was a pleasure to meet them, because despite formal networking events being an utter bore to attend, it normally is!