We occasionally hear from friends that they’re uncomfortable with networking and that they feel awkward in social situations.  Our friend Carol White Llewellyn offered to write a post about this topic.

People who know me now would be surprised to discover that for most of my life, I have been painfully shy.  Throughout my career, I chose positions where I could be “behind the scenes” making things happen.  I became an event planner  – a stage manager no one sees whose job it is to make others look great.

One day at a conference, a man introduced himself to me.  He had been watching me at the conference and confronted me, asking why I hid behind my work.  I was shocked.  I had never really thought about it, but I realized he was right.   I also realized I hid it because I’d never really learned how to network, mingle and simply chat with people.  That was an awakening.  I set out to change it.

Several years later, I began publishing a travel magazine, and out of necessity, I had to step out from behind the curtain and into the spotlight.  I found that I enjoyed it and that I love networking and meeting new people now.  So, here are some tips I’ve discovered for those who are reading and who dread every event they attend where they’re afraid they’ll be a wall flower:

~ Arrive at the event early.  Pretend  you are hosting the event and that it is your job to make others feel welcome and comfortable.

~ Realize that a lot of the people in the room feel as uncomfortable as you.  Find a person standing alone and engage him/her in conversation.  I guarantee your presence will be welcome.

~ Understand that it doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you’re upbeat and say it with a smile.  Start with simple topics…the punch, the music, a compliment on the person’s tie or purse.  It doesn’t matter as long as you’re friendly.

~ Recognize if the conversation doesn’t flow (and it may not in spite of your best efforts), it’s not a reflection on your skills as a conversationalist and don’t beat yourself up. Conversation is a 2-way street.  If the other person puts up a barrier, traffic stops.

~ Think of an efforvescent person you admire and pretend you’re that person.  How would s/he react?  What would s/he do or say?  By pretending to be that person, you start emulating the qualities you’d like to possess and you’ll find it easier to be more comfortable.

~ Listen, really listen to the other person.  Most shy people “stay in their head” worrying about saying or doing the wrong thing.  If you are listening to the other person, it’s hard to say the wrong thing:

~ Ask questions.  Years ago, someone said that every person’s favorite topic is him/herself.  I thought that was very cynical.  But to some degree, it’s true because your world revolves around you and the things you’re familiar with.  So get a person talking about his/her interests, and you’re halfway home.

~ Don’t stay too long with any one person.  The idea is to network and grow your pool of friends.  You can’t do that attached to a life preserver.  You can politely say,”I’m going to let you go so that you have the opportunity to meet some more people.”  You can always add, “…but I hope to catch up with you later.”

~ Avoid sensitive topics such as religion, politics, off-color jokes, etc.  The man or woman you offend this evening may be the potential boss you interview with tomorrow.

~ Get the person’s business card and try to remember his/her name.  Remembering names can be very tricky, but the more you practice, the better you’ll get.  If someone you know joins your group and you can say, “Joe, do you know Mary Beth?” you’ll make both parties feel great.

If you still feel squeamish about going into social situations, I recommend the evergreen “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie .  It continues to be one of the best books ever written on networking, before there was such a word.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to try some of these ideas in a great environment, consider attending Wick-edly Sent’s Girls Night Out on April 30th.  It’s guaranteed to be a ball and there’ll be a lot of friendly people there.  Here’s to your successful networking!