If you’ve recently joined the Bay Area tech and startup community, the rites and rituals of this unique population may be more bewildering than the first time your boss made you use SharePoint. A truly exciting rite of passage for any scene newcomer is the first invitation to a networking dinner. This will include a charming-but-ambiguous email from “an influencer” with a date, time, and fancy restaurant location for a night of knowledge-sharing with a group of local doers and thinkers.
Does the thought of such an event make you nervous? Concerned about your techn00b status or your idiosyncrasies that might make you unfit for re-invite? Based on a recent personal experience, here are five things you should definitely not do at your first networking dinner.
You were likely invited to this dinner to discuss your ventures and ideas, but the invitees were all blind copied and you know little, if anything, about what will be happening. Once ushered toward the back room of the restaurant, do not circle the table slowly, reading all of the names in a “radio theater” voice and don’t mention things like candlesticks and nooses. Similarly, do not start Googling everyone’s name on your smart phone. It’s a bit tacky, and it’s a sad, amateur spy move; besides, your seasoned host will be sure everyone introduces themselves at the appropriate time.
Everyone is going to be looking for people they recognize, so instead of spy shenanigans, be sure to make note of the people at the table and discretely take down their names if possible. Exchange as many business cards as you can and if you missed anyone, politely follow up with your host in your “thank you” note (that you also must not forget to write).
2) Don’t overshare.
While you may know little about the product or company of the person sitting next to you, stay focused and try not to derail the conversation by oversharing. No one wants to listen to a story of when you lost a tooth playing Monopoly, waiting to hear how it applies to the conversation topic.
If you must contextualize a comment with a backstory, keep it brief and poignant and share only the most important details; these special details will make you memorable, rather than boring. Also, be sure to prepare for the evening by doing a brief overview of the most popular industry news from the past week. This will give you something better to discuss when you suddenly feel the impulse to share that time you found a potato chip in the shape of Elvis’ profile.
3) Don’t sell yourself too hard.
In an attempt to pendulum-swing back from oversharing and boardgame references, you might find yourself trying to bring serious back by listing your accomplishments and dropping names like a contestant on “Rapid-fire Résumé Rundown.” You may even find yourself using a deeper or louder voice and pausing longer than normal to lend some gravitas to your presence.
Selling yourself at a networking dinner does not mean delivering an elevator pitch on why you are important. You have several hours with these people, so relax, and thoughtfully engage with them. You can find moments to strategically mention that successful project or significant partnership you initiated, but remember that your value is more than your LinkedIn profile; if that was all you were, why bother inviting you to dinner? So be more than your résumé and don’t forget to use your natural voice.
4) Don’t trash products or services by name.
Rather than accidentally dogging Farmville to a member of the Zynga team or bashing Klout because, well, you have none, try to avoid specific products and thoughtfully address trends instead; at least until someone higher up on the tech pole deems it safe to name names. You can never be sure of who knows whom and you can bet that the “six degrees of separation” in the room now connects you to the entire Bay Area tech community.
5) Don’t forget you were invited because of exactly who you are.
At this point, you may have declared the Head of Corporate Marketing the murderer in the Library with the lead pipe; discussed the time you placed second at the soapbox derby; and finally, you may have just accidentally told the Image Czar of that huge retail chain that her spring campaign palette “looked like a toddler had spit up a fruit salad.” In other words, your steaming cup of awkward runneth over.
However, do not, under any circumstances, let your faux pas define your significance in that room. You were asked to be there for a reason, even if you might be questioning your “valuable” contributions at this point. So give yourself a break and trust that you do have some unique mind-diamonds to sprinkle on the group; those gems are why you were invited in the first place.
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