I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always comfortable in social or business networking situations. I’m one of those reformed wallflowers who had to train hard to learn some outgoing tendencies. I’ve come a long way with becoming more comfortable in social situations. But I was out of practice at a recent business expo.
Luckily, I recently had the chance to take a walk around the event center with some of my TruScribe colleagues. We talked about some of the things that can help people ease more naturally into these situations.
Escape the Comfort of the Booth
Business expos usually have an interesting dynamic, especially when your company has its own booth at the event. You have the choice between standing at your booth or venturing out on the event floor to visit other booths.
In the past, I wouldn’t stray too far from the home base.
It felt like the most natural place to be since people wander up specifically with the intention of talking to you, cutting out the need for a forced or awkward ice-breaker.
However, a conversation with Eric Oakland, TruScribe’s CIO, made me look at this tactic in a different light. Eric does not identify as an introvert, and he told me he does not like to cling to the company’s booth…but, not for the reason I suspected.
Eric said he finds the conversations he’s able to have at the booth limiting since the people coming up to the booth are primarily there to hear his story. “And these days, I’m much more interested in other people’s stories,” he said.
Suddenly, I started looking at the event floor less like a sea of awkward conversations, and more like a reservoir of knowledge.
While there might be a few people out there ready to launch into a hard sales pitch, the majority of people at the other booths want to tell their stories. Armed with this new perspective, I shadowed Eric for a little longer. Sea or reservoir, you still have to jump in the water from time to time.
Use the Buddy System
Traveling around the floor with Eric reminded me that networking is easier as a team compared to flying solo.
It was easier to slip into a new conversation with strangers in-between chatting with each other than it would have been to hop in front of a booth by myself. I also think our dynamic as employee and company founder intrigued some people who already knew Eric. This led to some points of discussion we might not have otherwise had.
In short, if you’re new to these types of events and/or are more on the introverted side of the fence like me, networking by partnering with a more extroverted co-worker can help you ease into things.
Connect with Personal Interests
I mentioned earlier that I felt like I needed an ice-breaker. This feeling of needing to break the tension to initiate conversation is something that I always internalized, creating a mental hurdle that I needed to clear before I could settle into a more natural conversation. What I’ve learned to do instead is something that in hindsight makes so much more sense.
As Eric pointed out, walking around the event space gives you the freedom to engage people and businesses you actually find interesting, and genuine interest is much easier to talk about than a forcing a conversation with a canned opening line.
I put this to the test later that day. Eric had to go attend to obligations other than babysitting me, which left me venturing out without the safety net of the buddy system. It wasn’t something I would usually do, but my goal for the day was putting myself in situations outside my comfort zone.
With this in mind, I buckled down and wandered around the floor weaving through the aisles of booths full of marketing specialists, tech startups, human resource managers, and finance bureaus. Most seemed like nice companies, and I had to politely excuse myself from some harder sales pitches.
I eventually made my way over to a booth occupied by a local utility co-op. Renewable energy has always been a topic that’s piqued my interest. When I saw a prominent solar panel display, I knew I had to stop by and chat.
Listen First, Then Engage
I walked up to the booth and asked about the solar panel.
It was that simple.
The man behind the table – Zach – explained that they were building a solar array that would be operational in the next few months. I listened to the soft sales pitch he had worked into his conversation. I asked a few general questions about how the co-op was structured. About how much of the grid was renewable based. Zach provided answers and talked about company projections and goals. It was a nice conversation.
Then I remembered what Jim Herkert, TruScribe’s CEO, told me when I arrived at the expo earlier in the day.
He keeps the conversation on the person he’s talking to rather than the company they work for. So I did just that.
I asked Zach how long he’d been working for the co-op. Suddenly we weren’t having a nice conversation, we were having a great conversation. He told me more about his background and work history. We talked about how a wind farm in Iowa could soon supply grid power all the way here in Madison. I asked how battery technology was scaling. Was it getting to be a viable storage option at the scale of the grid. He explained how solar powered hydrogen electrolysis could provide a better form of storage for when the arrays can’t supply power.
It was all interesting, but more than that, it was easy.
Socializing is a Skill
I’ve explained my position on talents and skills in a previous blog post, and networking is a similar skill to develop. We all have an innate ability to socialize and communicate with other people. Just like weight lifting, playing chess, or drawing pictures, some of us need extra training to build our skills up to get closer to those who are more naturally talented.
Putting in the work can be hard, and putting yourself in situations outside your comfort zone is intimidating.
But just like anything else you have to work at, the more you practice, the more skilled and comfortable you’ll get. That’s what I’m going to continue to do, and I hope this inspires you to do the same.