We can now look back and laugh at the awkwardness of the eighth-grade dance with its clusters of kids standing around trying not to look too eager or uncool. Instead of taking a risk and walking across the room, many of us watched and waited, hoping someone would approach us. I bring this up because I recently attended a networking event that was eerily reminiscent of that scene in the junior high gym.

networking2Many “networkers” lingered in stalled conversations because it was easier to stay put than try to break into a new circle. Others killed time burying their faces in their phones while a few folks worked the room and collected business cards. I did manage to strike up a conversation with an outgoing, successful and connected woman, however, who told me she almost didn’t show because she didn’t know anybody who was going to be there. The irony.

If the most extroverted personalities with hundreds of LinkedIn connections can feel uneasy entering a room full of strangers, imagine how most of your target audience feels. To quell the nervousness and create successful networking events, here are five ideas to consider:

1) Cast a wide net but limit the number of attendees

You instantly add cache to your event if you cap the numbers and vet attendees so that the audience is not skewed toward any one particular demographic (job seekers, for example). In your email invitation, be sure to highlight that the select group of attendees has been handpicked to ensure they get the most from their participation at the event.

2) Start conversations before people arrive

Create an event page on Facebook, dedicate a Twitter hashtag and/or use LinkedIn to begin conversations in the days leading up to the event. This will minimize, if not eliminate, the jitters people feel before entering a room alone.

3) Personally connect individuals

Introduce individuals before the event. As the host, you can and should do that. Look for similarities in job functions, office locations, alma maters or home states. A personal note of introduction can go a long way in achieving your goals.

 
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4) Provide conversation starters

The only thing more awkward than standing around trying to “network” with strangers is, well, that eighth-grade dance. To engage attendees and give them something to talk about, provide conversation starters. Show a fun or informative video, for example, or live demos of cool new products developed by members of the audience. Consider giving each attendee a different (and fun) question to ask a new connection. Example: Turn the basic “what do you do?” question on its head with the more open-ended, “What do you love most about what you do?” 

5) Establish ground rules

Not everyone who goes to a networking event knows how to effectively network. You can help them by creating a  networking newsletter that outlines the rules of engagement. It can include, for example, asking permission before adding a new contact to an email list. Encourage attendees to focus on making genuine connections as opposed to simply collecting names. Remind them that the key to good networking is to fully engage individuals as opposed to trying to appeal to the masses.

You can’t go back to eighth grade for a do-over, but you can inject fresh ideas into your networking events so attendees will feel inspired to walk across the room and start a conversation.

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Do you excel at networking or need improvement? Please share your tips and strategies in the comment box below.