Social Anxiety and Face to Face Networking - Small talk and your One Minute Introduction made simple
Updated: Jun 27
Face to face networking requires a focus on a slightly different set of skills when compared to online networking, which I’ve covered previously on my blog. It has it’s own strengths and weaknesses and while we may personally prefer one or the other, it seems that both methods are going to create a hybrid mix for the foreseeable future. If you’ve started your business during lockdown, this may be an alien environment for you. And if you’ve been in business a while you might be feeling a bit rusty, so here’s some tips to refresh the parts that need it!
I’ve gathered together my thoughts and tips on this experience which while being a very real and beneficial opportunity for business people also represents a significant achilles heel for many, especially those just starting out in business.
I am going to start this piece by discussing some underpinning issues regarding meeting strangers and then get very specific with do’s and don’ts at the end. Please don’t just skip to the end though as this information here will be vital for understanding where I am coming from. And as with most things in life, it’s the subtleties that can make or break a situation. Such as context and the reasons ‘why’ something is so important. So let’s dive in.
If we could wave a magic wand which enables you to engage comfortably, be au fait with small talk, in networking meetings would you be interested?
The good news is that you possess everything you need already to do this, and all it takes is a little reminder to take us back in time to what we used to do instinctively as little children, before we got all self conscious. When we were curious about the world and the people within it. Before ‘life’ happened!
So let’s make sure we understand what we’re talking about here.
What do I mean by small talk?
And why do some people say they ‘hate it’?
I suppose it starts with how you define yourself in terms of extroversion or introversion. If you are a naturally chatty talkative person (extrovert) then you perhaps enjoy the experience of networking (but DO you? ALL the time? I know even confident extroverts who feel uncomfortable when they consider their one minute intro or elevator pitch, especially if it’s a group they’ve never been to before).
But if you see yourself as introverted, are uncomfortable talking to anyone, and would rather compose your interactions via email or text, then you might feel a little anxious or awkward striking up conversations with total strangers in business meetings or having to talk to weird Uncle Al at family events, or nutty Nora, wife of Adam in accounts at the office Christmas party!
But don’t worry about this fixed stereotyping, because they don’t apply ALL the time do they? So for those of you who agree with this statement you’ll be perhaps interested/amused to hear that there are also, and you’re going to love this, the new terms, ambivert and omnivert. And they relate to the fact that this aspect of your personality (like most things) are on a spectrum. So low on sociability would be introversion, and high would be extroversion. Pretty straightforward really. And I am not kidding...
Ambivert and Omnivert (getting your head around them yet?) are applied variously to mean someone who exhibits qualities of both introversion and extroversion, and can flip into either depending on their mood, context, and goals. Not sure they’ve really caught on in every day parlance but I’ve seen some articles recently mention this and if you ‘have a google’ (sounds a bit saucy doesn’t it?) you’ll see they’ve been around a few years with Forbes (unsurprisingly) enlightening us about them in 2016.
So they help us express a pretty good middle ground and would probably encompass most of us! So that’s a relief. We can get out of that pigeon hole and amaze people with our new vocabulary!
So after all that excitement, we’re back to small talk.
Small talk you could say, is the supposedly small social interaction which happens when you first meet or are introduced to someone. They might seem ‘small’ but they are a necessary first step, helping us decide whether we want to continue the contact. Based on how comfortable they make us feel. Simple comments and ground breakers are all that’s required at this stage.
Some people say they hate it because it all seems so shallow and pointless. Of course, many of us prefer the more rewarding/interesting conversations that share values and feelings and make a connection with someone, but even those conversations had to start with something, however trivial. What we don’t like I think is the idea of ‘wasting time’ talking to people. BUT if we consider that everyone has something to share with us about themselves which might increase our empathy or understanding about the world in general, then really, there’s no such thing as a wasted conversation.
Listening to someone properly is an act of kindness.
The gift you have given that person in feeling heard will stay with them. Possibly for life. Can you remember when someone has unexpectedly seemed genuinely interested in you and really seemed to have heard what you’ve said?
So this nirvana can seem a giant leap from ‘small talk’! However, I’ve come to see that even the classic British small talk about the weather enables us to assess whether we like the way the person treats us. Are they respectful and giving us attention or are they looking over our shoulder? Do they interrupt every time we say something and direct the conversation back to themselves or do, they ask another question, asking us to elaborate on something we just said?
This ‘small talk test' helps us decide if we want to continue sharing the space with them. But what paralyses us perhaps is that we are all aware that everyone makes snap decisions about us in the first few seconds. (As indeed do we about other people). So rather than make the wrong impression by for example, saying the ‘wrong thing’ we might prefer to avoid the whole thing and not risk someone’s displeasure with us. People used to describe themselves as shy. Now it’s called ‘social anxiety’. However, there comes a point in all of our lives where we cannot hide behind being shy or anxious, and we cannot simply ignore this first important step. We have to ‘engage’.
How you do this is actually essentially simple.
We need to forget about ourselves and focus on the other person.
Yes, it really is that simple. Yet most of us are self interested and self conscious and this doesn’t come naturally.
However, it’s worth considering as it removes the need to have a witty one liner up our sleeves or some amazing news to impart. In fact, if we look at it, having something impressive to say about yourself is a recipe for disaster. How would you react if someone started talking about themselves as their opener? Unasked that is? There's less pressure if we focus on the other person. What I am trying to say is,
we don’t need to worry about having anything ‘to say’ about ourselves, because the universal truth is that no one is interested, in that moment, in us.
They are obsessed with themselves and hoping that we like them. So we are preoccupied with whether we fit in and whether the other person likes us, and they are too.
Someone has to take the lead here and help things along, and that person could be you!
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked. It’s the fundamental principle that our society is based upon – finding our tribe and being accepted within it. Loners are not governable. Society wants us to want to fit in. And it makes most of us happier to feel that we do fit in.
We are all people pleasers by instinct. From that first moment our smile generated a returned smile there’s action and reward right there. And it never leaves us.
Some of us do things which do not help ourselves in our lives, in order to please others. But that’s another story. And if that’s of interest to you, I’ve done a podcast on this very topic which you can access here.
So that’s the context and the background and my heart felt views on the topic.
Now let’s drill down into networking meetings specifically.
BEFORE THE MEETING
There’s just no point rocking up to an event where you don’t know anyone and hoping you’re going to find it a fulfilling life experience.
There’s so much you can do to make this work for you!
DO research the speakers (if they’ve been announced) and the people organising and follow them on their socials. Especially memorise a few faces and facts if you can. Can be hugely useful on the day.
DO find the social media accounts for the event and share their posts about the event or comment on them. This will make you familiar, as if they already know you before the event and will definitely help with introductions when you’re there.
DON’T turn up without thinking carefully about what you want to aim to achieve from the session. You are giving up at least a couple of hours of your time, this cannot be underestimated as a significant investment of your energy and time. Don’t waste it!
DO update your socials and Linkedin biogs and photos – nothing worse than not being able to recognised people at these things because their photos are a decade (or worse!) out of date.
DO try to make contact with the event organisers before the day. Ask if there’s an attendee list and scour it for people who might be interested in meeting you.
DO dig out a name tag badge or similar if you have one. Not all events provide them and if it’s your first time there they may not have yours yet. Always good to have your name clearly on display, helps people feel more confident talking to you if they can see your name – even if no one else is wearing one it is helpful and can help break the ice.
THE EVENT ITSELF
There’s different types of networking meeting, those you attend each week and where you are greeted like a long lost friend (and which are altogether life affirming) and attending a meeting where you neither no one.
And the latter is obviously the one that needs a bit of help! So that is what we’re focusing on here.
DO try to dress in a way that is comfortable for you but also will fit in with the existing group – you can show your personality more perhaps as you settle in and feel more comfortable. Unless your clothing is part of your USP or your distinctive ‘personal branding’ of course.
DO look for any familiar faces that your prior research has yielded. Or seek out the organiser. They will want to help you fit in, numbers is their game! And keeping you coming back will be in their interest. And if you also know who is likely to be there (from your research/email to them) or what sort of people you’d like to meet, I am sure they will be only too happy to introduce you.
DO make a bee line for and then hang around the tea/coffee making facilities if you don’t know anyone and you can’t find the organiser. Someone is bound to come up while you’re there and it’s easy to form a light and casual bond over the quality or otherwise of the coffee/biscuits or which one is hot water etc. Never fails. Gives you an opportunity to smile too, and this might be the first time you’ve smiled since you got there!
DON’T be afraid to simply sidle up to a group and listen attentively and wait, while keeping an eye on who else is coming in and what the vibe is. Assess who the lively people seem to be, who seems to also be on there own etc. I love going up to someone who is looking as forlorn as I feel and saying hi and asking if they’re also on their own. Also never fails. People are grateful and now you have an ally. And the organiser will be pleased that you are ‘rescuing’ someone too.
DO make sure you’ve got an idea of a skeleton ‘elevator pitch’. You will need this for the casual chat which is usually happening when you’re all turning up before the meeting starts proper. At the very least, having considered ideally before you get there what makes your business unique and what values you want to demonstrate or share, a succinct statement (ideally catchy and easy to remember) about what your business does or what benefit you provide people by what you do is a good thing to have up your sleeve to either open (after you’ve given your name and your role) or close your introduction.
Or perhaps use it ‘both ends’ to help reinforce it? Which could also be a good idea for your name and company name. Also a good idea to say why you’ve come and what sort of people you would like to meet.
DO scan the room while you are talking. Avoid reading. You shouldn’t really need visual prompts for a one minute intro if you stick to a simple structure. Smile, pause between phrases, react to other people, scan the room and the faces to engage them more. Don’t ramble on just because you’re encouraged to by their feedback. And even if others go over the allotted time, avoid the temptation to do this yourself. It will be appreciated by everyone!
DO listen intently and take notes when people introduce themselves to get an idea of what format they seem to favour. Each group has a different feel and some are more casual than others. They will expect you to be slightly nervous and will be willing you to be able to express what you need to when it’s your turn.
DON’T worry about being able to impress on the first visit. No one is likely to use you on the first meeting. It can take weeks or months to actually gain contacts or work from these meetings. It really is persistence that wins over. And turning up regularly.
DO remember to simply be friendly and open if you can. Try to put across your business in a clear and succinct manner but don’t worry overly about this. It’s more about you as a person. After all people buy people, not a business name. The more closely aligned your natural personality is to your business brand and message, the more easy it will be to have a more enjoyable and productive meeting.
DO try to ask a question if there’s a speaker but don’t be too dominant and extend the answering by asking follow up questions. This is not the time to impress with your detailed knowledge of everything under the sun, but it is good to engage and ask SOMETHING if you can. Passivity is not prized in these environments.
DO attempt to get a photo of some aspect of the proceedings. The speaker is usually a good bet. Or a shot of the whole group from a distance. You can check if it’s ok with the person leading. Who might ask everyone. They are bound to say yes but it’s polite to ask. Then you can share it after and it might be the only photo of the event that exists. I’ve lost count of the number of times that photo has been taken by me!
If you’ve forgotten to ask and it’s happening (the speaker for example) just take the pics and ask after if it’s ok to share. Rather than not take and miss the opportunity entirely. Most speakers will be very grateful that you’ve taken the shot as were they even there if there’s no photo evidence? (lightly joking here but still, the point is valid). Even better if you could share a quote or something similar on the socials after. Either your socials or those of the event.
DON’T think it’s pushy to give out your card – even if it’s not asked for. Obviously it’s better if it’s requested but you can get round this by asking someone for theirs first. It’s polite to also ask you for yours. Consider putting your photo on your business card, as it’s then easier to remember you.
DO follow up. To help with this, do make notes on the back of people’s cards as soon as you leave the meeting. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget a few days later. And also make a note of who you are thinking of contacting via email. And make sure you do, within a day or so. It will impress - as long as it’s not a full on ‘sales pitch’. Make it tailored and not too lengthy.
It will be noticed and it looks efficient. Who are they more likely to do business with if the opportunity arose? Someone who has made the effort and looks organised and reliable or someone they’ve just come across with no other evidence? You really are missing a trick if you don’t follow up. Wasting your time entirely.
DO post any photo or quote and tag as many people as possible (ideally the ones you feel will be most interested in what you do)
DO thank the organiser in public online.
DO share/like any posts which they share online about the event and quickly become a useful member of the group. You will be surprised how many opportunities can come your way if people think you are out for the greater good and go that extra mile. It will be noticed and it’s a very rewarding environment to be in, being appreciated and visible. And I wish you all the best with your networking experiences.
So in summary:
Forget about yourself; focus on the needs of the other person.
Leave your ego at the door.
Smile as you walk up to someone – you’ll be amazed at how often it’s returned. It also ‘shows your hand’ and indicates that you are friend not foe. We all need a little reassurance with first encounters and we’re all second guessing people’s motives. Smiling (and if you can, looking them in the eye) makes it easy for them to relax and abandon flight or fight reflex!
Enjoy the freedom and liberation of listening. If you don’t feel confident talking first, you could sidle up to a group who are already talking, and just listen and nod/laugh in the right place. People love a good listener because you become their audience. And we all love a good audience. It makes us feel special and encouraged to continue. In time, you might find yourself naturally drifting into the conversation.
Just let it flow. Basically, don’t worry about it. If you want to you can even say ‘I never know what to say at these sort of events’, which will almost certainly generate a knowing nod and solidarity with the person you have ‘opened up’ to. They will feel the compliment of seeing the real you and again, the ice is broken.
Ask open ended questions. If you’re feeling like you can cope with saying an opener, simple things can start you off ‘How do you know (the host)?’ ‘How many people do you know here?’ ‘How did you hear about this group’ ‘How long have you been coming to these events’ .
‘What’ and ‘How’ are particularly effective. If you find you are getting yes and no answers, don’t think ‘they are being hard work’, it’s actually that you are asking the wrong type of questions, ones that only generate a ‘closed’ yes or no response.
Focus on listening properly to the other person, it will make them feel special. This is often referred to as Active Listening as opposed to ‘passive’ listening which I am sure we’ve all experienced. Someone appearing not to pay attention, perhaps in a face to face setting they are looking over your shoulder or their eyes are glazing over. Perhaps they are interrupting you mid flow and not asking you any follow up questions. We are all hyper sensitive to this. Sometimes if we’re not feeling too good, it can really drain any confidence we’ve mustered and make us want to run away and hide.
Be curious. Follow up their answers with other questions if they don’t ask you one back and just go with the flow. The ice has been broken. How quickly you delve into ‘interesting’ questions is up to you.
For business or especially social situations where you are meeting people much older than yourself (and initially when I was younger, about whom I would assume I had nothing in common) I got a lot of really interesting insights by asking what advice they would give someone of my age (people love giving advice). Being interested to hear about the changes they’ve seen in their lifetimes and which have been the most interesting/positive or even negative and problematic for them was always a winner. Those sorts of questions seemed to open the floodgates. There’s a chance you’ll be genuinely fascinated by their life stories!
Open your heart, enable other people to tell their stories and notice how you feel more connected with everyone and everything around you!!
“When dealing with people let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion” Dale Carnegie
I hope this has helped, or perhaps reminded you of some tips you’ve already noticed but perhaps don’t do consistently?
If you have any questions or want to add some of your own, please email Helen@thomsontraining.com. Would be great to hear from you.
If you think this would be useful for your team, feel free to share or perhaps if you’ve a group of people, I could run a face to face or on line masterclass. It’s what I do and I love doing it. More information about all things training on my website.
I am also a business mentor helping keep business owners on track, focusing on small business owners in particular.
I am on twitter as @helenthomsonuk and of course, Linkedin, so don’t be a stranger!
Photo shows: l-r. Eric Clarke, HT, Stuart Green, Denise Austin, Christine Frith, Daffyd Wynne