5 Hacks to Help You Survive a Networking Event

08/19/2016 05:11 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2017

Hearing the words "I need you to attend this networking event tonight on our behalf" can trigger a series of extreme reactions in an otherwise rational person. The range of discomfort can vary from apathy and weariness to aversion, distress and even a rising tidal wave of nausea, at the thought of forced social interaction. These normally sociable, easy-going folks morph into reticent, nervous versions of themselves with sweaty palms and dry mouths. They would rather be anywhere than in this room full of strangers right now. We've all been there, clutching a glass of cheap chardonnay and willing ourselves to be invisible.

So why are we reduced to fidgety, flustered versions of ourselves? It's a well-known fact that networking ranks alongside public speaking in terms of inducing alarm in even a seasoned individual. It used to be that networking was reserved for successful, American corporate types with dark suits and perfect teeth. We've all met them - confident, articulate and engaging, with easy smiles, strong handshakes and larger-than-life personalities. It seems to come naturally to them, while the rest of us struggle with the mere idea of it.

The good news is that networking is a skill that can be learned without having to get an MBA or attend Swiss finishing school, and while you may never learn to love it, there are ways to survive it and come out with your pride intact. Here are five hacks to get you through any networking event:

1. Hone your personal pitch
That's networking lingo for: practice introducing yourself in two sentences. It might sound pedantic but it works. Just saying "hello" leaves you wide open to a conversation that you don't want to have, or even worse, silence. Instead, say something about what you do and chances are a conversation will ensue about that:
Me: "Hi, I'm Mary. I'm with Fantastico, the event management group."
Scary stranger: "Hi, I'm Mike. I don't know Fantastico, what do you do?"
Or he might say...
Scary stranger: "Hi, I'm Mike. We're actually looking for an event management company. Do you deal with xyz?"
Suddenly, you're having a conversation that you're comfortable with.
You're welcome.

2. Be the sad loser in the room
Honesty is disarming. It might seem to you that everyone in the room knows everyone else and that they're all having a terrific time, laughing their heads off and putting arms around shoulders for selfies. You feel like you're back in school watching the cool kids, having lunch alone.
Survival tactic: walk up to the closest person next to you and say:
"Hi, I'm Mary. I know absolutely no one here!"
It works every time -guaranteed. Why? Because we've all been the sad loser in the room at one point so we can relate to how you are feeling right now - and we love your honesty. The only risk is that the person closest to you is so boring that you'd rather be getting a root-canal right now, but that's not the point. The point is you broke the ice.

3. Lead with a question
Ask someone what it is that they do, or how they are involved with this group.
Even if you really don't care what their answer is, it doesn't matter. While they're responding and you're busy nodding and not listening, you can figure out what to say next, or how close the exit is.

4. Say hello to the speaker
If the event has a speaker, or a host, then they are easy pickings for making conversation. It's their job to speak with everyone in the room. Find one thing they say in their speech that resonates with you, to use as your opening line:
Me: "Hi Orla, I'm Mary. I loved what you said about expanding your tinned goldfish company..."
Orla: "Hi Mary, great to meet you. Actually, we..."
There you go... having another conversation.

5. Get all Sherlock Holmes and find the fun people
Every gathering has some boring, some nice, and some downright fun people. Scan the crowd for a minute. See who's doing a lot of talking, laughing, wild gesturing. Who are other folks gravitating towards? Then introduce yourself using your sad loser line and brace yourself, as you're pulled into the wild-gesturing fray.

If it makes you feel better, those seasoned American executive-types aren't necessarily naturals at this - they've just had years of practice. Many habitual speakers will admit to some nerves before addressing a crowd, so it's something that even the accomplished have to endure. You've just got to decide you can do it, grab that glass of chardonnay and hide behind a fake smile until you make a connection that gives you something to smile about for real.