Ugh, networking, amiright? If you would rather finish your least-favorite chore than go to a professional event, you’re not alone. For many of us, networking represents meaningless small talk, a quid-pro-quo relationship, or feels downright scary.
But if you approach it with a positive attitude, have genuine conversations, and follow up with people you meet, you’re more likely to make a real connection that benefits your professional or personal life. You might meet your co-founder, a client, or a freelancer who can help you move your business forward—but none of that will happen if you linger by the bar staring at your phone, or just stay home altogether.
We spoke with Emily Merrell, the founder of the female-focused networking group Six Degrees Society (which has chapters in eight cities and counting) to find out how to take the work out of networking.
It can be uncomfortable to go up to strangers at networking events and strike up a conversation. Do you have any tips for breaking the ice?
Don’t be afraid to make the first move by introducing yourself. My go-to ice-breaker is a genuine compliment – it’s the best way to get someone’s guard down and start a genuine conversation.
Do you have any go-to questions you ask if the conversation starts to lull? Are there any questions you should never ask?
Before any event, I come armed with information on a new book I’m reading or would like to be reading, a little piece of non-political gossip, and a television or movie recommendation. For example, Game of Thrones is always a safe conversation starter (but no spoilers, please)! I steer clear of making political generalizations as well as relationship generalizations – unless the person starts talking about their partner, it’s best to let them bring her or him up before asking.
You want to meet multiple people at a networking event, not one or two. Do you have any advice for politely leaving one conversation to go to another?
Give yourself roughly 10–15 minutes per conversation. Once the conversation is winding down, make sure to exit the conversation before you are exited on. Kindly excuse yourself and tell them how wonderful it was to meet them and that you’ll be following up—and make sure that you *actually* do so in a timely manner.
How do you recommend following up with someone after a networking event?
I like to make life easier and follow up with individuals the night I meet them. My go-to hack is to open a new email browser, type in their email, and write a creative subject line like “let’s talk tacos” or whatever it was you were talking about. That way the hard work is done for you and the ball is now in their court.
Do you have any tips for creating authentic relationships with someone you met at a networking event?
Networking is a bit like dating – it’s about remembering the small details and nurturing the relationship. It’s also a give and take. Make sure you’re giving more than you’re taking, so follow up with links that pertain to the company they are building or invite them to an event they might enjoy as your guest.
What is the best piece of advice you’d give to someone who “hates” networking?
Be open-minded and know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. You aren’t the only uncomfortable one there, and, since you’re already out, why not make a new friend or connection. You never know where these will lead.
What advice would you give other people who want to build their own business?
Build a side hustle and test the waters of your product before you become an independent professional. When you create your business and have a full-time job, you’ll have the flexibility to pivot your ideas and cultivate an audience before sacrificing a consistent paycheck.
What’s your go-to networking icebreaker? Tell us in the comments below!