In today’s post, I address a question from Caroline Nash of Carolee Crafts (at least 2 other readers asked about this, so I knew it was really important):

I’m very shy and fine on a keyboard, but face to face I freeze. Small talk and I do not mix, and I end up feeling like a fish out of water…stuttering and stammering over trying to find something to talk about other than the weather.
You’re not alone, Caroline. According to various statistics, up to 88% of us classify ourselves as shy, or somewhat shy. Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, taking your online business into the real world can be anxiety-producing (probably more so for the introverts in the house, I’ll admit). Sure, it’s easy enough to network on LinkedIn when you can take hours to compose the right response to someone’s question. But what do you do when you need to take yourself out into the real world?

Know, Like, Trust

It’s true. Your mother told you not to talk to strangers. And she meant well. But she probably didn’t know you would have your own business some day and actually need to talk to strange, new people. If you’re great at the online stuff, it’s time to master the in-person meet-ups, too. These are the ones that often mean the difference between a bottom line that sucks lemons or one that’s flush with cash. Why? Because they give people the opportunity to know, like and trust you a whole faster than online. So let’s address this, shall we?

25 ways to make in-person networking work for you

  1. Pick the right event. To get the biggest bang for your buck, choose a meet-up where your prospective customers are sure to hangout. If you’re not sure that you’ve chosen correctly, attend something at least twice before you cross it off your list for future networking.
  2. Pick an event with a speaker. When you know that the group’s attention is going to be fixed on someone else, most of the pressure to perform is lifted. Plus, you’ll automatically have a topic for discussion with those sitting near you (but wait until the speaker is done!).
  3. Try something different. There are all types of networking events — small ones, large ones, mixers, breakfasts, formal and informal. If you’re not comfortable with one type, try something new. There are even networking events that function like speed dating! And you’d be surprised at how well they help you practice your conversation skills. Do a search on Google or to see what’s available in your area. There’s also in some of the more major metropolitan locales.
  4. Research before you go. Do a quick Google search and spend 15-20 minutes getting caught up on the latest news surrounding the industry and/or speaker. You’ll feel much more confident starting a conversation when you’re familiar with relevant and current events.
  5. Set a small goal for yourself. What would you like to get out of going? Would you like to meet three prospective customers? Connect with a possible industry peer? Or just learn more about your local business climate? When you have something specific and measurable that you can work toward, you’ll be much more likely to accomplish it.
  6. Know your pitch. What will you inevitably say when someone asks, “So, what do YOU do?”  The best answers are those that naturally lead to more questions. For example, rather than telling someone you’re a bookkeeper, tell them you help small biz owners stay financially sane. They can’t help but ask, “And, how do you THAT?”  Wa~la! You’ve just been given the green light to talk a bit more about what you do. The thing to do here is mention the value you bring to your customers. What are the top three problems you solve? Start with one or two and then turn the tables on your conversation partner — ask them what they do when they’re not at having fun at this event.
  7. Get some advice. Fear is directly connected to the unknown. When we know and understand something, our fear disappears. If you’re really shy and afraid of in-person mixers, get some professional advice. One of the best ways to start is by reading, “How to Work a Room,” by Susan RoAne. I’ve recommended this book to literally dozens of folks who’ve told me what a great help it was to them. But if, after reading it, you still feel apprehensive, find a business or marketing coach who can help you practice your pitch and networking skills. The personalized is priceless.
  8. Bring professional business cards. If you bring cards that you got for free from Vistaprint, you’re not going to look very professional (sorry, you’re not). Make sure you have cards that you’re proud to hand out. Even better, do something fun and creative to make yourself stand out. These ideas might spark some inspiration for you.
  9. Wear your own name tag. You can get a personalized name tag ahead of time and keep it handy for those in-person events. Hint: wear it on your right upper chest, not your left. That way, it’s more visible when you shake hands. When your name is out there and visible, it makes it a lot easier for people to approach you and start a conversation.
  10. Bring a friend. Sometimes it’s easier to walk into a room with someone else. But be careful! You don’t want to use each other as a crutch. Share your goals with each other ahead of time to keep yourselves accountable. Then agree to separate quickly so you can mingle and meet new people.
  11. Stay positive. Many times our expectations about something can influence the outcome. If you’ve already made up your mind that you’re not going to meet anyone worthwhile, guess what? You won’t. Leave your ‘Why bother?’ attitude at the door. You are one-in-a-million and have a lot to offer other people. Just remember that!
  12. Smile! It’s hard to be negative when you’re wearing a smile on your face. And smile with your eyes, too. These two things are billboards that tell the rest of the room you’re warm and friendly.
  13. Arrive early. If you’re going solo, it can feel intimidating to walk into a room full of people on your own. If you get there a little early, you’ll be able to scope out the room and maybe warm up your conversation skills with any staff or other early birds.
  14. Have a question or two ready in your back pocket. Starting or joining a conversation is easier when you’re prepared. And guess what?  People love to offer advice. A question that I like to use if I’ve just walked up to a small cluster of people is, “This is my first time here, who do you recommend I connect with tonight?” If you’re talking with someone one-on-one, your question might be, “I’m new here, what do you like best about this group?”
  15. Be ready with answers. One of the “hot” questions that folks like to use at networking events is, “What are you looking for?” Your answer can be a great way to start the sales process, if you tackle it correctly. Usually, you’ll want to start with a short description of your ideal customer (e.g., “I’m looking for folks who have to throw a baby shower in the next couple of months.”) You could also answer with a resource you’re in need of like, “I’m looking for a local source for alpaca yarn.”
  16. Connect on a personal level. Don’t make the meet-up about finding new customers; make it about finding new friends. And remember that quality is more important than quantity. It’s not how many business cards you collect (or hand out), it’s how well you connect with other human beings. When you remove the goal of trying to sell, the pressure is off and you can be open to learning about someone new.
  17. Be authentic. Who you are is more fabulous than you know. Don’t try so hard to be “on” — it just comes across as being fake. If you’re a little nervous, it’s okay to admit that to someone else. Your vulnerability makes you human…and instantly more likeable. But don’t wallow in it either — misery loves company, and if you talk about how miserable you are, you’re sure to attract more of the same.
  18. Repeat names. When someone introduces themselves to you (or if you are being introduced to a group of people), make it a point to repeat each person’s name after it is spoken. Doing so will help you remember them better and makes the connection in your brain of the name-with-the-face.
  19. Be the listener. You don’t have to talk about yourself at all. Ever. Just ask questions and listen intently. People love to talk about themselves, and when you let them, you automatically become more likeable.
  20. Watch your body language. If you stare off into space or at the floor, you’re telling folks that you’re just not interested. Crossed arms and slumping can also have the same effect. Remember to stand or sit up straight and keep you arms loose at your sides or behind you.
  21. Give generously. Start with compliments if you don’t the person. But be genuine! Once you’ve attended the same event for a few times, you’ll get to know others in the group and can be a resource for them. Make introductions whenever you can (“Oh, you need to meet so-and-so, she’s looking for someone like you.”) and offer small tidbits of information when you hear people ask for help on a certain topic.
  22. Ask for a card. If someone connects with you and it feels right, go ahead and ask them for their business card. This will allow you to keep in touch with them later and work on deepening the relationship. Make a small note on the back with 1 or 2 tidbits about your conversation so you’ll remember what you discussed when you get home. Note: Don’t offer your card until and unless they ask you for it. Never assume that because you got theirs, they should take yours, too.
  23. Befriend the connectors. There are always at least two or three of these types of people in a group. They’re the ones who know everybody and who love to connect others. Once you find one, ask her to coffee or to lunch, so you can pick her brain about the group, your industry locally, or some other topic of mutual interest.
  24. Follow-up promptly. Within 1 to 2 days, you should send folks an email to thank them or ask them for a follow-up meeting, if appropriate. If there wasn’t really anything said about meeting up later, you could just send them an invite to connect with you on LinkedIn or another social networking site.
  25. Get involved. When you find a group you like, step up and volunteer. Taking a leadership role in the organization will make you more visible and give you the opportunity to get to know the other leaders more closely.

Now that you’re armed with all the right knowledge, make a commitment to put these tips into practice. Once you’ve tried them, I’d love to hear back on how things went. Leave a comment for the rest of us below, and if I missed something, please share!