Yesterday I was helping a client prepare for a networking event, and as many of us do, she expressed anxiety about not knowing anyone there.
Furthermore, she felt that she wouldn't fit in with this group of executives and business people because she's from the nonprofit sector. She believed that nonprofit representatives are always perceived with their hands out looking for sponsors and donors, and that she was somehow inferior to the well-known philanthropists and business people who would be at this event.
She thought she would have nothing to talk to them about, and that their eyes would glaze over when she told them about her organization.
My first thought was, "Whoa, Nelly!" Back up a step here.
1. The grass is always greener
I reminded her that many people wish they were doing more meaningful work. There are probably quite a few executives that she'll meet who wish they could give more time to volunteering for their favorite causes. She's in a position to contribute to the community every day, to focus on her passion for making the world a better place. How lucky is she to do that for a living?
2. Everyone has something to offer
Just because she's not a high-powered executive doesn't mean she has nothing to offer. I suggested that she see herself as a resource, as someone who's there to help and to give, whether it's sharing her favorite business book or her favorite dry cleaner. She can always be thinking of ways to be helpful, no matter which direction the conversation goes.
3. You don't have to talk about yourself
Regarding her concern about eyes glazing over, yes, she will have to talk about what she does when she introduces herself. But beyond that, she should have several ideas of questions she can ask and topics to bring up that focus on the other person. It's more important to be interested in the people she meets than to make them interested in her.
The more she focuses on the other, the more memorable she'll be as someone who's friendly, approachable and a good listener! And she'll build relationships in the process.
4. Don't assume everyone else is comfortable and confident
She assumes that she's the only one in the room who's nervous, but just because someone appears confident doesn't mean they are confident. Realize that most people are in the same boat and feel uncomfortable meeting new people.
One way to make this easier is to find someone else who appears to be alone, and act as a host by introducing herself and striking up a conversation. If they really are alone, they will appreciate the outreach. If they're not alone, soon there will be additional people joining the group for her to meet.
5. Don't assume the other person holds all the cards
I shared this story with her:
I went to a private school for my last two years of high school. I was a day student, a group that made up only about 10% of the whole population. We felt that the boarding students looked down on us because we didn't live at the school and we paid less to go there. We assumed they thought less of us because we weren't as "legit" as they were.
Several years after I graduated, I happened to run into a classmate and we got into a conversation. He told me that the boarding students always thought the day students were snobby, because we had cars and could come and go whenever we wanted, while the boarding students were restricted to campus except for days off. They felt that we were lucky to live at home while attending the school and that somehow we felt superior to them because of these advantages.
My jaw dropped. All this time, I had seen my population as the underdog, in the less-desirable position, when in reality, they saw themselves the same way.
Don't assume that you're the underdog in the story. The other person may very well feel that you have an advantage over them. Another example of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence: Maybe you actually have something the other person wishes they had.
Approach networking as an opportunity to give, to share, to build relationships, and don't worry so much about who's more important than whom, who's more famous than whom, or who's got more than whom. Everyone has something to offer, everyone brings value to the table. Go. Meet. Enjoy!
Here's the original "Five favorite networking tips" post.