Many things run through your head at the beginning of a networking event: Do I need a breath mint? Will my palms stop sweating in time for me to start shaking hands? Why does this stupid nametag keep getting caught in my hair?
As advice for this stressful situation, people often repeat two common refrains: “Fake it until you make it,” and, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.”
I’m going to make a radical suggestion: ignore those (well-intentioned) bits of wisdom. The secret to authentic networking is to stop pretending to be someone you’re not, stop playing dress up and start being you.
After all, how can we get to know each other if we’re all faking it?
Of course, there is a caveat: Being yourself is incredibly difficult when we’re groomed to believe simply being “us” isn’t good enough.
We live in a world that demands our homes and meals always be Pinterest-worthy, our opinions be brilliantly expressed (while being limited to 140 characters or less) and our favorite vacation photos receive enough likes to validate their worth.
We post “selfies” that are actually perfectly posed, mini snapshots into our vanity. Our hair is done, not a strand out of place; our lipstick is freshly applied, tongue positioned to the roof of our mouth for the perfect smile. Then we post and say, “Look, here I am in my natural habitat! Just me, being me!” Yeah, right.
Years ago—well before the selfie era—I gave up pretending to be someone I wasn’t and chose to simply be me. You know what? I got job offers, I made friends, I met clients and I built my own business.
I don’t want to pretend I’ve got it all figured out; I want to be my authentic self and show my true colors. Here are a few ways you can relax and let your true colors shine, too:
Set goals: Go in with a brief to to-do list of what you hope to accomplish at the event. This will serve the dual purpose of alleviating the feeling that you’re just walking around waiting for something to happen and also giving you a go-to talking point that feels authentic. In the past, I’ve set goals that range from getting recommendations for a bookkeeper specializing in small business to looking for introductions to successful women business owners with inspiring stories to share to on my podcast.
Dress for comfort: Forget about the whole “dress for the job you want” adage. Obviously you don’t want to go to a networking event in sweatpants, but wear something appropriate that makes you feel confident.
Smile and laugh: Just because it’s business doesn’t mean it has to be serious business! Laugh, smile and make jokes when it’s appropriate. It relaxes you and everyone around you. When I’m at an event, if I think I have spinach in my teeth from an hors d’oevres, I’ll smile and ask the person I’m in conversation with if I have any food stuck in there. The person I’m speaking with is usually taken aback that I wouldn’t just run off to the bathroom to check. But if I’m having a good conversation, why should I interrupt? I’m human, and I’m okay with that. In fact, most people say it makes me appear more confident.
Be vulnerable: It’s okay to admit you’re not up to speed on the topic at hand. Ask questions when you’re unsure! People love to teach others and feel like an expert.
In short: drop the act, put those costumes in the back of your closet and just be you. You’ll be surprised how many people like that person—including yourself.
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