Whether for a corporate or social purpose, networking was never my favourite thing. As a true introvert, the thought of milling about and starting random convos with complete strangers was sweat-inducing. In social settings, it was easier for me to play it cool in a corner with a drink, hang with my friends, and not worry about having to reach out to anyone else. However, when it came to corporate networking events,fun and familiarity were non-existent, so I had no choice but to do the damn(ed) thing.
When I held an Account Management position for an international company, I learned that networking and "schmoozing" (yes, corporate people DO use that term) were vital parts of the game. Because I was so comfortable speaking with my various colleagues, my bosses figured I'd be a natural at networking events.
Not to mention, it was probably a fun social experiment to throw a 6ft tall, twenty-something Black female into the pool of midlife-crisis-afflicted White men and see what happened...another post for another day.
Back to networking. Definitely not natural for me, but I've learned it's much easier than it seems.
At conferences, I'd overhear people going about it ALL WRONG. "So, how about this weather, eh?" or "Say, did you catch that Jays game last night?" were not my ideas of sincere conversation starters. One of the keys to successful networking is to be (or do a damn good job of pretending to be) sincere. People gravitate more to those who come across as genuine, so don't fall into the trap of kicking off with a mundane opening.
So, what DO you say to get the conversation flowing? I learned that there is one phrase, guaranteed to get your networking off to a great start:
Your name. That's it.
A simple, "Hi! My name is ________. How are you?" with a smile will force people to respond. From there, build upon what you have in common: your presence at said conference, party, or event. Chat about the food, the keynote speaker, the venue, the traffic you faced on the way over, whatever. You're both in the same spot for a reason, so build upon that. Then, if you're at a more corporate event, or just looking for a way to plug your business, you've already established some common ground. This is a much smoother approach than the assault by business card: running up on someone with your card in hand, ready to relay the contents of your resume before you exchange names. An immediate turn-off.
In order to steer the conversation into business-land without feeling fake or forced, there is another magical question that has never failed me:
"So, what do you do?"
The funny thing is that when I've asked that in corporate settings, I'm almost always met with the reply: "What - like, for work?" The devil on my left shoulder says "Yes, you idiot. What else are we here at this travel insurance conference for?" but the angel on my right says, "You know, there might be more to this person than just work." So I let the angel cook, and I usually reply "Sure - work or anything else!" I always get interesting responses. People will always tell me what their employment angle is, but usually throw in a fun tidbit like "...and I play the tuba in a jazz band with my buddies" or "...but my FIRST love is ice fishing!" This just gives you more to build on and adds a more personal touch to the connection.
By this point, you've exchanged names. You've established some commonalities by chatting about the shared space you're in. You've inquired about their work life, while giving them a chance to feel like a human, not a cubicle troll, and you've hopefully gotten the chance to share a thing or two about yourself as well. You've maintained sincerity, you've been a good listener, and you've hopefully attributed something to the person to help you remember their name. But PLEASE. Don't do this nonsense of using the person's name in every damn sentence as a memory tool. You sound like a dumbass, and it makes the other person uncomfortable. BE HONEST. If you're bad at remembering names, own up to it. Do your best to remember - take their card, and write a quick word or two on the back (not in front of them) to help you remember who was who. That's what works for me, anyways.
As I've detailed here, the best networking results come to me when I keep things SIMPLE and SINCERE. You're a stranger - you don't need to do a ton of conversational acrobats to blow people away in the first meeting. Also, remember that this is a skill that takes time to build, especially if you're not fully comfortable in new surroundings with new people. Practice makes perfect, so have your business cards ready, make sure nothing is in your teeth, and get to it!