How to approach more people at a networking event

How to be confident at a business networking event when arriving and approaching people.

Regular readers (hello!) will by now be armed with some goals. You’ll have done your research and know why you’re at an event.
Now’s the fun part – meeting people!
When I present sessions on networking, I always ask how many people feel fully confident about approaching strangers. It’s rare that more than two or three people put their hands up. When I ask how many people feel nervous, shy or uncomfortable about approaching strangers, almost everyone’s hand goes up.

Surprisingly, there’s some good news here – you’re not alone!

Tip 1: Get in the right mindset. Remember that you’re not alone – everyone at the event is nervous, and everyone will welcome you saying hello.
It’s very easy, when you arrive at a networking event, to believe that you are the only person who feels shy and nervous. It’s easy to look around the room and imagine that everyone knows everyone else, and they’re all having the time of their lives.
But the truth is exactly the reverse – almost everyone is in the same state as you. One of my clients said once ‘I spend the first ten minutes of every networking event wishing I was anywhere else’. From the look on her face, she clearly meant it! And she’s not alone.
Knowing this can give you confidence. Remind yourself that there’s not a single person in the room thinking ‘I’ve chosen to come to a networking event, I really hope I get to stand alone all night’.
Anyone you speak to will be grateful that you’ve made the effort to say hello. Everyone – without exception – is at the event to meet new people. Perhaps they’re there to meet YOU?
Tip 2: Arrive early.
A curious thing happens at business networking events – the fewer people are in a room, the easier it is to talk to someone. Many people, though, make the mistake of arriving later, thinking ‘I’ll blend in better’. But you’re not there to blend in. You’re there to meet new people.
The easiest introduction you’ll ever have is when there are just two people in the room – you, and someone else. The earlier you arrive, the more people you’ll meet too!
Tip 3. Ask the host for help.
Hosts at networking events want their guests to have a great time, and they’ll usually do everything they can to make you comfortable. Ask your host for whatever you need. If you’re new to your industry, let the host know and they’ll make some introductions. If you would like to meet some specific people, ask the host to introduce you. Hosts are normally happy to gossip a little too – they’ll point out the easiest people to speak to, or the person who is an influencer in your industry.
Tip 4: Say hello to the first person you see alone.
I’ve mentioned this tip in several articles, but it’s worth repeating here. Don’t ‘scan the room’ selecting the most gorgeous/useful/interesting-looking person. Just say hello to the first person you meet who’s standing alone. This stops you building up nerves, and also gets you straight into the swing of an event. The person you speak to will be grateful that you’ve broken the ice too.
Tip 5: Observe the (obvious) body language.
Sometimes, there won’t be a person alone, you’ll have to approach a couple of people, or a small group. When you do this, it’s worth noticing their body language. Avoid couples who are facing each other directly, or who are very close to each other. Usually they don’t want to be interrupted. Look instead for people slightly turned away from each other (you’ll often notice their feet are turn away at about 45 degrees). These couples have usually come to the end of a conversation and will welcome and introduction.
Another thing to remember is never approach pairs by walking straight towards them from across the room – it look strange and sometimes intimidating. Where possible, approach people from the side. If you want experience ‘close-up entertainers’ such as magicians, you’ll see they do this all the time, since they need to make an excellent first impression.
Tip 6: With large groups, talk to one person.
Sometimes, you’ll have to approach a large group. Again, watch the body language, if they’re all clustered together, try to avoid them. If they’re strung-out in a ribbon shape, though, that can be a sign that they’d welcome new people.
Where possible, try to talk to one person at one of the ends of the ‘ribbon’. If the conversation with the group is going well, they’ll bring you in to the conversation. If they want to get away from the conversation, they’ll be glad you’ve given them the chance, and start talking just to you.
Tip 7: Have some simple conversation starters.
You don’t need to learn a script, but having a phrase or two prepared can help you to approach more people more confidently. In a future post, I’ll list some of the useful conversation starters I’ve heard in the real world, but it’s not rocket science – be yourself and smile!
With individuals, I tend to say ‘Hello, I’m Lee, I don’t think we’ve met yet?’. (It’s pleasant and relaxed, and also gives me a get-out-of-jail-free card if we HAVE met and I’ve forgotten!). With groups, I’ll usually speak to one person at the end of ‘the ribbon’, and say ‘Hi, what’s everyone talking about?’.
Following these tip will build your confidence at approaching people. In the next article, I’ll take you through building interesting conversations and being memorable for the right reasons.
In the meantime, let me know if you try these techniques out in the real world – what works for you?