The thought of attending a networking event can be a source of anxiety for engineers at any stage of their career, so how can you overcome your awkwardness and make the most of networking opportunities?
Starting conversations with strangers can be intimidating – especially if you are introverted – but these are important skills to help your personal and professional development.
For starters, networking is a great way to find out how others do similar activities in different environments and to learn from their experiences.
When you go to an event it is so easy to stay in your comfort zone and only speak to people you know. Whilst it is important to keep up with existing contacts, friends and colleagues it is also useful to meet new people – particularly if you are looking for someone to collaborate with, want to share best practice or are even after a new job.
Choosing your event
Events you attend should be relevant to your field, practical so that you can attend, and also interesting to your future work. If you are at a conference you might choose to attend sessions because of the great speakers, because you think you would like to meet someone in the audience or because you want to learn more about the topic.
With time at a premium, networking also needs to be strategic, so you could liaise with other team members to make sure you cover key events and can share useful contacts with the rest of your team.
Do your prep
If you are going to an event to do some networking then it’s vital that you do some preparation beforehand. Think about your objective - do you want to network generally or meet specific people? Get the event brochure and decide which talks you want to go to, and look at the delegates attending to find out who might be where.
The way in
So how do you start up a conversation with a complete stranger? The easiest way is to just go up and introduce yourself, but there are a couple of prerequisites.
Firstly, you want to make the person comfortable, so name badges are useful as they make it clear who you are and what organisation you are representing. If it doesn’t say where you are from on your badge you need to put that out there quickly so they know.
Secondly, networking shouldn’t be confrontational or bullish. You want to talk to these people and learn from them, but you also have to recognise that you haven’t got all day to do it in. It’s not worth going to talk to someone unless you have a specific objective in mind, whether that’s learning more about something specific, or because you already know them and want to develop your professional relationship.”
Another good start is to point out any relevant links between their roles and organisation and your own, as well as how others that you know might be able to help them.
For whatever reason – time constraints, other people to see – you may want to draw the conversation to a close at some point, so how do you do it without appearing rude?
Use a combination of body language, actions and words. You can gather your things and say something simple like ‘I need to go to another stand/to speak to another colleague now; it’s been great talking to you’, or if you want to leave the conversation tell them you are looking to meet someone with expertise in your area of interest and ask if they can point you in the direction of anyone who can help you. This then allows you to say thank you and go off and find them.
This is a good moment to exchange business cards, agree if a follow-up email about a specific topic is required, and extend an invitation to stay in touch via social media.
If you’re new to networking then then there are some no-nos to remember.
Most conferences and events have a tightly knit group of people there and if you misrepresent yourself you’re likely to be excluded quite quickly. For example, choose your moment if you’re looking to speak to someone who’s already engaged. It may have to be a quick in and out with a request to call them later, but if you do it politely that’s fine. It’s really just basic common sense and good manners, so don’t blot your copybook before you’ve even started.
At any event there will be a whole gamut of people – those on the regular circuit who look like they know what they are doing, but also the first timers or people with a specific learning objective – so if you are one of the latter don’t feel you are alone; there are a lot of others in the room in the same position as you. And remember, the more you do it, the easier it gets.