I volunteered to man the water table at International Night at my son’s school the other night. I joined the other parents lingering back behind the self-serve station. For fun, I decided to spell “SAA” (acronym for the Science and Arts Academy) with the water bottles, and ‘voila!’, the quiet water station became a spark of conversation and activity, as people paused to read, some boldly destroying letters, others satisfying their sense of order by replacing and rebuilding letters, others compelled to leave the letters intact and take from the nearby cases, all the while engaging and chatting with those behind the table.
Agata, my table partner, confided in me. “I’m not good at networking. If I have to join a group or enter a conversation, it’s hard for me.” And, probably no surprise, but Agata is not alone. The Social Anxiety Institute estimates that about 7% of the population suffers from some form of social anxiety at the present time. The lifetime prevalence rate for developing social anxiety disorder is 13-14%.
1. Get an “official role.”
Offer to volunteer for the first shift or for set-up before an event begins. One, you’ll get the ‘lay of the land’ in advance, plus you’ll get a chance to feel comfortable in the space before the event starts. An added bonus is that you’ll appear as someone ‘in the know’ to others—you’ll know who’s in charge, the schedule of activites, if and perhaps why the guest speaker is running late, and, the most important tidbit…where the bathrooms are!
2. Come with a few “event-related” questions/conversation starters in hand
What’s your connection to the event? How did you hear about it, or what interested you in attending? Of if you are a fellow guest of someone, how do you know so and so? Have you heard this speaker before? Oh, wait, hold off on that last question…why? Be sure to phrase questions so they are not answerable with “yes” or ‘no.’ The better phrasing to start a conversation is “what have you heard/do you know about this speaker?”
3. Have a couple of stand-by ‘outs’ at the ready
Even if you are getting the hang of it, you might feel a need for a break. Getting a beverage (although be careful with anything with alcohol if you tend to sip more frequently when nervous), checking out the buffet, going to find the restroom…all are easy and convenient ways to say “Excuse me, I’m enjoying speaking with you, but I just want to run and find x before the program starts.
And, final reminder…
People like to talk about themselves (note to self—don’t forget to edit out “I” as the first word in this article that is supposed to be tips for “you.”) Ask a question and let them go.
Or, as with the SAA water bottle display, maybe there’s something that can be a conversation piece…or look for a conversation piece in the room and stand near it, to get things started
Or, who knew…you can privatize it!
This is probably the grade school equivalent of sending your friend over to talk to the girl or boy first to see if she/he likes you, you can hire an entrepreneur to help you prep, talk you up with the crowd first, before you enter the conversation. (See this 2013 article from Business Week)
What do you fear about networking or chatting in business or social settings? What tips can you share that have worked for you?