I was going to call this post "How to network with human beings". But I don't like that word (and I'm guessing you don't either). Networking sounds sleazy and self-serving.
I was also thinking about calling this post "How to meet famous people". I've met some semi-famous folks in the tech world; but writing a post about how to do that is just silly. Truthfully, getting your photo with a well-known personality is more about bragging rights than making a meaningful connection.
Too often, we think about networking in terms of "what we can get": we network so we can improve our employability, so we can move up the ladder, or to fill our emotional needs.
These events aren’t for “networking”: they’re to make friends. - Tim Smith
Here's what you should focus on: building relationships with interesting people. Find people you can collaborate with, people you can learn from, people you can form friendships with and people you might want to work with in the future.
When I was in my early 20's, I attended a small conference (30-50 people). When I arrived, I felt shy. I watched the outgoing people talk and joke, and generally not notice me. I went into classic social victim mode: this is where you locate the nearest bowl of chips, sit down, and pout about how nobody likes you.
Sitting in the corner, eating my chips, I had a realization: "I'm being so selfish: I'm expecting all these people to cater to my emotional need for belonging." This changed my thinking: when you're in a social situation you need to focus on what you can give to others, instead of what you want from them.
Maybe I'm more selfish than most, but I constantly have to remind myself that it's not about me, it's about others. This mental model transforms me from a victim to a social leader.
Here’s what I started doing: instead of hoping someone would approach me, I approached people and introduced myself. Instead of talking, I listened. Instead of excluding, I included. Instead of guarding my emotions and appearing stuck up, I tried to be open and friendly. If someone seemed to genuinely not want my company I just moved on to the next person.
I lean towards extroversion: I could go to an event and meet 200 different people, and by the end of the night I would be more energized than when I arrived. This makes me disposed towards roaming: jumping from group to group, conversation to conversation, person to person.
Roaming is fine; it's the social equivalent of speed dating. You meet a lot of people, in a short period of time. But as you develop your social leadership skills, you'll recognize situations where it's best to stay put (to be an anchor). This normally occurs at events where most of the folks don't know each other, and there isn't much conversation or activity in the room.
In these situations, I try to be an early initiator, anchor myself in one place, and gradually include more and more people in our conversation. This has a number of effects:
You want to be able to ask good questions, and then follow-up with more relevant questions. Asking questions does people a great service: they don't have to worry about what to talk about - you're providing the direction.
Don't be afraid to ask general questions! Asking general questions is a good strategy because they lead to deeper questions. Here's an example from a real conversation I had at a conference:
"Where are you from?" "Las Vegas."
"No way! I was just in Vegas. I heard you can ski there, is that true?" "Yes, actually I skied there quite a bit this year. We have a small hill just outside of town."
"How long have you been skiing?" "Since high school. I grew up in Utah, so we had a lot of good local places to ski."
"I've been wanting to snowboard at Park City, Utah. Have you been? What's it like?" It's amazing! If you get a chance, you should definitely go.
For programmers and designers a good question could be: "Do you have any side-projects that you're working on?" Business folks and managers might respond to: "What opportunities are you seeing in your industry?"
Asking good questions (and then being able to follow-up with other, relevant questions) is a skill that requires practice. It will feel awkward at first, but as you continue to practice, you will get better and better at it. Soon, it starts to feel like second nature.
I regularly send my email list tips like this.
People that meet me at events, have heard me speak, or listen to my podcast sometimes get the impression that I'm socially confident all the time.
But I'm just like you. I get nervous, I get shy, I feel awkward. I try things, and fall on my face. I say embarrassing things, and regret it later. Sometimes I go to an event and nothing clicks.
If I'm doing anything "special" it's this: I keep actively trying to improve the way I interact with others. I remind myself that "it's not about me" and force myself to focus on the other people I meet. I practice, practice, practice asking good questions (I honestly have fake conversations with myself in the car).
I'd like to help you with this too. Leave a comment below, or send me a tweet at @mijustin about a struggle you've had with social events. I'd love to listen and help if I can.