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How to Grow Some Balls at Your Next Networking Event

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networking introduction

I hate large groups of people. Hate.

For whatever reason, I freak out that everyone knows each other and no one wants me there, so I hide in a corner and make a grand total of zero new contacts. Regardless of the fact that most other people also hate these events, I still find ways to avoid them.

Problem is, we all know if you want to go anywhere with your career you need to know people. The solution for shy people like yours truly? Grow some balls.

Turns out the difficulty isn’t usually the conversation, but getting the conversation started. So here are some ways to work your way into the crowd and triumphantly come out with a pile of business cards you may or may not throw out later:

Find a break in the clumps

If you’ve ever been one of the lucky few who finds themselves in a clump of chatty people, you’ve probably experienced this phenomenon: You’re in the Clump, talking about health care or whatever and you notice a Lurker, someone who’s found a hole in the clump and is awkwardly trying to join the conversation.

Be that lurker

Thing is, no one actually minds the lurker! It’s not like you’re high schoolers gossiping about Tammi’s new haircut. These folks are all here to network and those lurkers have the right idea.

So if you arrive at an event and notice everyone’s already in little circles making friends, find a break in the groups. Listen for a bit, then chime in with your own story. It will be like you’d been there all along — and I pinky-promise no one will mind.

Find the Loner

I’m better networking one-on-one than trying to charm a group of people, so the trick is to look for the person who looks the way you feel – someone desperately clutching a glass of wine in one hand and pretending to text in the other. Yes, pretending. (I’ve gone so far as pretend to take a phone call.)

Waltz on up to them and FAKE. IT. Act like that charming person who rocks up and makes friends immediately. Say, “Hi, my name’s Francois. How are you getting on?” or even, “What are you doing all alone over here?”

Tell it like it is

While people may look at you weird, it often pays to be really honest in these situations. Sometimes I’ll push my way into a clump and say, “I know absolutely no one here and was standing awkwardly in the corner pretending to text. Will you guys make me look like I have some sort of a social life?”

Doing this successfully not only gives you the confidence to do it again, it helps you realize everyone can relate.

Head to the punch bowl

People usually head to the food and drink area alone, making this the perfect time to laugh with the person next to you about the cheap wine or vegetarian options. So if you’re really lonely, head over the food area often. Just make sure you don’t refill your wine glass every time. (Though, if you do, you might be infinitely better at making new friends.)

Offer your help

Occasionally I’ve arrived early to events and offered to help set up. Doing this can make you feel like you have a purpose other than standing around, and the organizers will get to know you, meaning you have someone to talk to later.

But be wary of getting roped into helping with the whole event. Surprisingly, attendees may see you as “the help” and not make an effort to get to know you. (I was once asked to film a speaker and ended up working the whole night.)

These tricks have seriously helped me be less of a whiny bitch and more of superstar. And by “superstar,” I mean “not a huge embarrassment.”

What can you add to this? Any advice for those of us who still cringe at the thought of networking events?

Marian Schembari is a blogger, traveler and all-around social media thug. She’s based in Auckland, New Zealand, hails from Connecticut and blogs at marianlibrarian.com.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://twitter.com/kimberlyaturner Kimberly Turner

    I thought this was great! I am a shy person and terrified to try networking events. I love how your approaches are so real, and funny! I love the humorous spin you put on this! Will share for sure! Thanks! One suggestion would be to take a friend along with you (even if they aren’t needing to network) they can make you feel more comfortable if you approach a group together!

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      Thanks so much Kimberly! I can’t believe I forgot about taking along a friend. When I moved to London to knew NO ONE in my industry, but at one event met a “loner” like me and we ended up being each other’s “wingmen” at following events. It was perfect because we wanted the same thing out of the events, so we didn’t stick to each other the whole night, but we also had each other as back ups in case things got awkward.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jacob-Marek/696640989 Jacob Marek

    i absolutely recommend the “telling it like it is” advice; a little self-deprecating humor goes a long way to break the ice.

    i also often PRETEND to be the suave, outgoing guy from the movies that everyone likes. nobody knows the real me is a klutzy, shy person, so in a room full of strangers, “fake it ’til you make it.”

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      Something about saying what everyone else is thinking has always really lightened the mood in my experience. And you’re also right about pretending. Sometimes you really just gotta fake it til you make it ;-)

  • Kimberly Lesch

    You forgot ‘Bring a wing-person!’ Going to these events with someone that has no issues whatsover with rocking in to a conversation often helps. Also, making a few connections with folks through Twitter who will be at the event gets you a foot in the door with regards to having a few people that you already marginally know who will be easier to talk to.

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      I know! So silly. I responded to another comment below on how I did that once in London and we definitely helped each other out – even though we were both shy.

      That said, in cities where you know absolutely NO ONE, it helps to feel confident all on your lonesome, before bringing in a back up. Still though, I always feel more comfortable going to these things with a friend – especially if you both want the same things.

  • http://www.tonygoddardconsulting.com Tonyjg

    Marian I have to say I’m not a fan of group networking events. A lot of people are only interested in getting their message across and not listening to what others have to say. I find that for my business it’s best to network on a one to one basis – this has brought me a lot of work. Also speaking at these networking types of event is a good route – then the audience are listening (mostly) to you.
    If you have to attend this large group events your tips are very good – it can be easy to become marginalised.

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      You know, I’ve had bad experiences and good experiences. My worst experience was at a small “professional networking event” in Auckland where almost EVERYONE there was in internet marketing and all they did was give their elevator pitch. There was no conversation, no sincerity.

      But the events that have been good were ones that were hugely specific to the industry – or even an interest! I went to a great hiking group once that was fantastic for “networking” even though it didn’t feel like it.

      You do have to give it a little time, and practice some trial and error when it comes to figuring out which groups are going to be a bust and which aren’t.

      I’m with you on one-on-one though, putting yourself out there and asking a stranger in your field for a cup of coffee has always been a great way for me to meet people on a more personal level.

  • http://twitter.com/athenanetwork Zsa Zsa

    First of all, I must say that that is one very catchy title! :) All great tips. You really have to learn how to read people in order to know how to best approach them. While it’s great to come prepared, be charming and all that, I think we need to pay attention to all the non-verbal cues and body language of others as well to network effectively. :)

    • http://alexisgrant.com Alexis Grant

      Yes, a catchy title and catchy piece — Marian is one catchy lady!

      • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

        LOL, you guys are awesome!

  • Stacey Hanke

    Hi Marian,
    You have some really great tips! Effective communication is a hard skill to master. I always tell my clients that communication is key when talking to customers, coworkers, or anyone you want to connect with in the business world. Competition is fierce these days and you have to consistently speak to influence.
    Stacey

  • Jazajac4

    Read the paper and the trade pubs before you go. It always helps to know current events. And ask questions: Hey, so what do you do when you’re not attending schmooze fests like this one? What are reading right now? What’s been the best part of your day so far?

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      Definitely – though you should be reading those anyway if you want to stay on top of your industry! This is why I find blog reading so helpful but it’s not only the “news” but people’s interpretation of it as well.

      My one problem with questions like, “What’s the best part of your day so far?” is that they sound canned. Forced. As for me personally, I’d much rather be asked what plans I have for the weekend or how I got into this industry as those feel much more natural and can lead to a conversation…. Just my 2 cents!

    • ceara ryan

      if nothing else, a quick scan at CNN.com will give you an idea of the latest water-cooler talk.

      i try to concentrate on Washington & the world at large, but don’t forget Jeanne Moos & the Entertainment section, as they can be great icebreakers as well.

  • Laurie Kagan

    If you encounter that other loner person, you could “say it like it is” with whatever is comfortable including “I could ask you your sign, where you live, if you have ever been to one of these before, but I would feel lame doing that. . . . So instead, I will ask, ‘What will make tonight a success for you? Who would you like to be introduced to? What information would you like to get?” Each of you exchange what you want out of the evening and see if you know someone to whom to connect this new person. OR, walk them over to someone they want to meet and introduce them. It is easier to approach others with a purpose other than yourself.

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      YES! Absolutely – nicely said :)

  • http://twitter.com/devilherdue Nicole Leffel

    Grow some balls? Really? Assertiveness is inherently male?

    If you want to be taken seriously, you probably shouldn’t use phrases that are most popular at junior high lunch tables.

    • Wildcard

      Haters gonna hate.

      • http://www.jobjenny.com/ Jenny Foss

        I adore Marian Schembari and, guess what? That headline reeled you in. And then you got the solid information within the article. Had the headline read “Networking Tips from Marian,” I’m guessing a lot fewer people would have clicked in. And, ahem, if anyone knows how to network her way into an amazing job? It is Marian Schembari. That is all.

        • Kmart

          Agree^^ and I would like to think that I have larger cojones than many of my male counterparts. :) great article.

          I would add one trick.. “you look really familiar…” works! Believe it or not.

          • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

            Heheh, I think I do too ;-)

            Also, love the “you look really familiar line” – bravo.

        • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

          Love you Jenny – you rock my socks.

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      Yup! Well, not that assertiveness is inherently male, but who said I want to be taken seriously?

    • Thomasdp

      How about “Grow your funny bone” Having a sense of humor will get you far in business too. A little assertiveness, male or female, is needed if you are shy at networking.

      That said, I loved the title. Might not have been as funny if the author was male. We laughed a lot in Jr. High. Why stop now?

      • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

        Love it! Sometimes I’m still a 12 year old boy on the inside :)

      • http://twitter.com/devilherdue Nicole Leffel

        Trust me, I laugh at plenty of things. But in business, women are consistently seen as “not assertive enough,” in part due to a prevailing belief that assertiveness is hard-coded into being male, and passivity is hard-coded into being female. By encouraging people to “grow some balls” you’re buying into that terminology and giving it credence. Words have power, phrases have power. If you didn’t think they did, you probably wouldn’t be a writer.

        Not everything is worth making a joke about, and to be honest, you’re not even making a joke. You’re using a cliched tagline that, yes, is sexist. It doesn’t become cute because you’re female. It’s just somehow sadder.

        I’ll probably be lambasted for being too PC, but vulgarity doesn’t bother me. The cavalier way in which you’re approaching what is a serious issue for professional women does.

        • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

          Another part of being a writer involves an understanding that not everyone is going to like what you write. And being okay with it.

          • Molly

            Marian, the headline was excellent — and it did indeed pull us in! I like articles like that. Nicole has a point, we all know that women are still trying to even things up in the workplace. But after that, I think she’s wrong. Headlines like this don’t put us behind. It’s also important to note that one of the biggest roadblocks to a woman’s success is, unfortunately, other women around her. Nicole’s criticism of your work here is a great example of how we don’t build each other up.

            Nice job, I enjoyed the article.

            Molly@glassheel.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/darcy.eikenberg Darcy Eikenberg

    To me, one of the best ways to make the most of an event is to stop thinking about “networking” (ugh–I am not a tuna and do not want to be in your net!), and start thinking about “building relationships.” Who has an open smile and a good laugh? Or who looks as lost as you and will welcome a new friend? Stop and look around and just notice what’s happening in the room. Choose two or three people and start to build a connection that you can followup on later. (And then do it–invite them to connect using a personal message on LinkedIn, schedule a coffee down the road, etc.) A quick handshake and card-pass does not a relationship make!

    Darcy Eikenberg
    Founder, Red Cape Revolution: Bring Your Superpowers to Work
    http://www.RedCapeRevolution.com

  • CHD

    Marian…wonderful way to sum it all up. However, being willing to actively listen, pay attention to others will get you into an inner circle faster than most people expect.

    My biggest mistake in relationship building was pointed out by my 3-year-old nephew as he was a “yappy little dude.” His 89 year old Grandpa on his birthday was busy telling me life stories, I kept telling my little nephew “shhh Grandpa’s talking.” Eventually the little one started to cry. Of course all around the table expressed great concern asking what’s the matter? He poked his little finger on my arm and said “HE WON’T LET ME TALK.” Good lesson…don’t blow it by trying to dominate.

    While Larry King made a living talking, he made his reputation and fortune by active listening and letting others have their say.

    In business social settings listening well works wonders.

    Good luck.

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      Oh man, I LOVE that story about your grandpa! I have totally been in that situation and you couldn’t have said it better. Right on.

  • Anonymous

    What advice would you give to Quasimodo or the Frankenstein monster? They probably could code Java 9 ways to Sunday, but if they were to break into a clump or approach someone, well, the reaction is well known. I would rather hire someone based on skill and not looks, but at a networking event, only Barbie and Ken will get any action (if you can say balls in a business context, I can say action that way).

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      I have to say, I’m not in total agreement with you here. Are you saying that only attractive people get the attention at these things? I’m just not sure that’s true. Even if you’re the Elephant Man, you can still grow a pair and starting the talking. No one said it was easy, but there are ways to break in. You just need to be brave enough.

  • http://www.handymanservicessydney.com.au Billy Soler

    I read this post and others some time ago and have tried to improve my attitude about networking and have even attended some events.

    I still feel anxiety to the point were I really do not want to attend any more events. I recognize that I need to. Any more advice?

    • http://marianlibrarian.com Marian Schembari

      I actually wrote this post just the other day – have you tried any of these tips since then?

      Still, being “ballsy” isn’t for everyone – it has to fit with your personality. If large groups doesn’t work for you, ask everyone you know if they know someone in your field they could introduce you to. Then ask that person if you can buy them a coffee and take it from there. When I’m not feeling up for a big even, one-on-one chats work for me!

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_F3U7D2DZQ3QEPCW5OJ3ICIH5YA ecaravello

    Really enjoyed the article and advice Marian! Thank you – great work!

    Cheers,

    Allen~
    Chicago, IL

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  • http://www.GroveCityDental.com Scott Schumann DDS

    Marian, GREAT headline! Marketing 101 is the purpose of the headline is to get them to read the next line and that headline definitely pulled me in and once in you did indeed deliver solid stuff. Kudos. It definitely took some….well….you know….to write that headline!! LOL

  • Stephyr103

    Late to the party, but thought this quote was appropriate:

    “A friend said to me, ‘Hey you need to grow a pair. Grow a pair, bro.’ It’s when someone calls you weak, but they associate it with a lack of testicles. Which is weird because testicles are the most sensitive things in the world. If you suddenly just grew a pair, you’d be a lot more vulnerable. If you want to be tough, you should lose a pair. If you want to be real tough, you should grow a vagina — those things can take a pounding.” – Sheng Wang (no pun intended)

    • Kevin

      I think I heard this from Betty White.

  • http://www.stacksofracks.com Terrie

    I think acquiring as much knowledge/information that is relevant to the industry helps your balls (I mean your confidence) It doesn’t really matter how confident you are if you have nothing to offer when you open your mouth.

  • http://www.getmyexboyfriendbackfast.com Steff @ ex back

    Hi Marian,

    You’re writing this article specifically for me, it seems. I feel so intimidated and loss for words after the initial formality. It shows. I just don’t have the charm factor. Which is why Tell It As It Is will not work for me. I won’t mind playing that super networker among the timids though, but I know it won’t be as rewarding as joining in a real conversation. Just what exactly do you talk about with these people??

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