If you're like many people, the word "networking" makes you break into a cold sweat. It can be really hard for a lot of people; maybe you're introverted and it's exhausting to just deal with so many people (strangers!) for even an hour or two. Maybe you're really new to your field and feel like you just don't have that much to offer to others, when you're asking for a lot yourself. And on that note, maybe you're entirely uncomfortable with how transactional networking can feel.
I wrote about networking in the Capital Women newsletter a couple months back, and I stand by the advice there, about how your approach to networking might make it more painful than it needs to be.
But there's another big piece of networking advice I'm gonna drop on you. It might not work for everyone, but I strongly encourage you to try it if you hate networking events:
That is, go to an event where you know you won't know anyone, and don't bring a friend. Fly solo.
I'm a reasonably introverted person (I've become less so, over the years, but I still need a lot of time to recharge if I've been burning a lot of "extrovert juice" lately.) For the longest time, if I was going to a networking event that I was nervous about because it felt outside my comfort zone, I would invite a more extroverted friend along, figuring that between them and the inevitable alcohol that most networking events thankfully serve, I'd have sufficient social lubricant to make it work.
In practice, that's not how it goes at all. In my experience, if you bring a friend to a networking event, you'll spend the whole time talking to that friend. They're a crutch. You don't ever really need to overcome the biggest, hardest barrier to networking at an event (the part where you actually walk up to a person and just say some words for the first time) if you're in a comfortable and entertaining conversation with someone you already know and like.
Additionally, having a friend means you're having to coordinate your moves, which contributes to the deadlock. Here's a conversation I've probably had at least a half-dozen time with various friends at various networking events:
Me: I guess we should try to talk to someone?
Friend: Yeah, I guess. Who should we talk to?
Me: I dunno. Those guys over there seem super bro-y; let's skip them.
Friend: Oh, hard agree, they seem terrible. That one guy looks like my brother's friend Steve; you remember him? From Soo's party?
Me: Oh, gawd, yes. He was awful. Didn't he end up just passed out in the back yard for like 2 hours?
Friend: Yeah, that was the best part. I finally didn't have to listen to him talk anymore.
(lols all around).
Me: Well, I guess those women over there look nice...
Friend: Oh, sure, I mean, we can talk to them if you want...
(neither of us move)
Me: I guess we should refill our drinks, eh? Get some liquid courage?
Friend: Oh yes lets, please.
We'll spend an hour or two at an event and have, like, one or two milquetoast conversations, because neither of us are really committing. We came there to network, but there's a much easier, more immediately fun alternative: just talking with someone you already know you like.
So my advice is to go to at least a couple networking events completely alone. Try to target ones where you won't run into people you know by accident, either. I've found this effective because it actually forces me to do what I came there (and, in many cases, paid $20) to do: talk to strangers. The math is totally different when your choices are 1) walk up to a stranger and talk, 2) stand around alone awkwardly, or 3) leave.
The bonus is that even if you keep finding yourself taking option 2, someone will probably walk up to you and start talking themselves. A person standing awkwardly alone is surprisingly easy to engage; you know you're not interrupting a conversation they're in the middle of, after all. As long as you don't take option 3, going to networking events alone will almost inevitably lead to more conversations than if you brought a friend along.
If you have a networking buddy that you attend these events with and you have lots of great conversations with, that's great! Keep doing what works for you. But if you've been getting a lackluster return on your networking event investments of time and money, give this a shot if you haven't already. And let me know how it goes!