I recently attended my first conference and had to genuinely put myself out there and network for the first time. I was dreading it. Despite the fact that I’m a very social person, I was so nervous that my normally frozen hands were clammy and sweaty. Through my excitement to learn at the conference, I was dreading the “So what do you do?” conversations.
Networking is a scary part of the professional world. When you’re just starting out in your career, it can seem like the most miserable thing to attend events and speak to strangers about your work. It isn’t as bad as we all make it out to be though. Yes, there’s pressure to impress and make strong connections, but at the end of the day, everything will work out—just keep these eight things in mind.
1. Everyone’s Nervous
It’s natural to feel nervous when meeting strangers and striking up conversations. When you feel like you’re too nervous or anxious to survive, just remember that each person feels nervous on some level. Even networking veterans can feel a little nervous to meet new people.
2. They’re All Just People
This is one of the most important things to keep in mind when networking. Yes, you want to impress other people in your field, but even the most experienced person is just a person at their core. CEO’s are people too—they have dreams and fears just like you do. These people aren’t gods. Remind yourself of that each time you’re overwhelmed or insecure about your career. We all have to start somewhere.
3. It’s Perfectly Fine if You’re a Little Awkward
You’re new to networking, so you can cut yourself some slack. It takes practice to become comfortable speaking to strangers about your career. If you stumble through the conversation at some point, just laugh it off, and don’t worry about it—and when all else fails, ask them about their career (because who doesn’t love talking about themselves?).
You’ll improve with each conversation and networking opportunity. I promise your career won’t implode if you embarrass yourself a little bit.
4. Be Yourself
Don’t worry about portraying a persona that doesn’t truly fit you. You should absolutely be professional, but you shouldn’t expend energy trying to be a career person you’re not. You’ll appear fake to anyone you speak to, and you can’t build a reliable network from that kind of slippery foundation.
5. You Don’t Have (or Need) to Meet Everyone
If you’re at an event, it’s natural to feel like you need to meet each person present and form working relationships with them. In reality, that’s not necessary (or really even possible). First of all, networking takes more time than a quick handshake. You’ll be placing unnecessary stress on yourself by trying to meet each person.
Instead, aim to meet a more reasonable number and to have full, in-depth conversations with around five people (although this number will vary depending on whether you’re at a weekend-long conference or an hour-long event). You stand a better chance of building a strong, enduring network this way.
6. Leave a Good Impression
You can’t actually leave a strong impression if you spend less than five minutes speaking to someone. Take the time to lead a real conversation over your work and their work so you’ll both have a good idea about whether or not a working relationship will be mutually beneficial.
7. Prepare Yourself
It’s inevitable that you’ll be asked what you do, where you work, and what your career goals are. Before heading out in your best blazer, run through a mock conversation in the mirror. It seems silly, but it’ll help to hear yourself answer those questions out loud. Explain your career to yourself. This will give you the opportunity to really hear your words and reduce your chance of freezing in an actual conversation. Remember that it’s okay (and actually good) if your answers vary each time—you don’t want to sound too rehearsed.
You also should plan out your outfit ahead of time. This way you won’t have a wardrobe crisis right before and end up being unnecessarily stressed out. The day before, lay out an outfit that’s professional and makes you feel confident and capable. There’s no shame in having a power outfit.
8. Don’t Psych Yourself Out
Go over your answers a few times, and then stop yourself before you begin to obsess. There is such a thing as over-preparing. Don’t obsess or try to have an answer memorized. The last thing you want is to sound like a robot each time you speak to someone. Balance out your prep time with some fun and relaxing activities—because networking really isn’t the be-all or end-all that we make it out to be.
Remember that you rock and no one has a right to judge you anyway.
As long as you keep life in perspective and do your best, you’ll make it through your first few networking opportunities. It’ll become easier as you go through life, so there’s no reason to stress yourself out over it in the early stages. Trust yourself—you’ve got this!