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The Z: 6 Tips to Make Networking Less Awkward

The Z: 6 Tips to Make Networking Less Awkward

We’ve all been there.

It’s the first day of an event and you’re standing in a crowded room alone. Maybe you’re new to the meetings and events industry and don’t know many other professionals just yet, or the familiar faces you’re typically used to seeing in the room are running late. 

For whatever reason, you’re alone in the crowd—and it’s really awkward.

Scanning the room, you notice you’re the only one not involved in a conversation, and you find yourself at a fork in the road with two choices that are equally as awkward as the other: 1) Interrupt an ongoing conversation and wiggle your way into a circle of people you’ve never met before, or 2) Be that person with their head down in a corner somewhere, pretending to be too busy on your phone to mingle with other people. 

Mandi Graziano
Mandi Graziano

One choice leads you down the path toward new industry connections and an expanding professional network while the other puts you right back where you started—alone in a crowded room.

Like my last column discussed, the meetings and events industry runs on being social and connecting people, and sometimes it really is more about who rather than what you know. To make your list of industry contacts as long as your list of skills, you have to be willing to wiggle your way into the circle.

Enter the value of knowing how to network, a skill Mandi Graziano, vice president of global accounts for HPN Global, considers “the easiest and fastest way to build your brand as a human, to grow in your business and to escalate through your career.” 

“Networking is important and selling yourself is important,” Graziano said. “Nobody is going to come to tell your story for you. You have to tell your own story.

“And not only do you have to tell your own story, but you’ve got to experiment with different ways to tell your own story, to participate in other people’s stories and also to enhance some of the stories that are around you,” she added. “It’s not always about you.”

The awkwardness of networking is inevitable, but Graziano—who also happens to be the best-selling author of Sales Tales: The Hustle, Humor, and Lessons from a Life in Sales, a hospitality sales coach and the co-creator of the Adventures in Business podcast—has some advice that may help. 

Make networking feel more natural by taking into consideration these tips and tricks from Graziano the next time you’re in a new group of people.

[Related Podcast: The Z: Navigating the World of Networking With Mandi Graziano]

1. Determine how you will physically interact with people.

Some people are handshakers, others are huggers (me included).

No matter how you choose to introduce yourself to new people or say hello to colleagues at a networking event, determining how you will physically interact with others ahead of time will help prevent yourself or someone else from being caught off guard. 

Mandi Graziano speaking at the 2023 MPI WEC
Mandi Graziano speaking at the 2023 MPI WEC

“How many times do you go in for the hug and somebody goes in for the handshake, and then somebody punches you in the gut?” Graziano said.

Deciding beforehand also gives you time to practice things like the “perfect” handshake or figuring out how to avoid physical contact entirely, if preferred. 

“If you are a handshaker, have the best handshake possible,” Graziano said. “It’s like web-to-web, pump, pump, make eye contact. Don’t crush somebody’s hand. Don’t be a limp fish.

“If you don’t want to shake people’s hands, that’s fine,” she continued. “Make jazz hands. Do an elbow bump, do a fist bump. But determine that before going to a networking event.”

[Related: The Z: Exploring Social Anxiety in the Meetings and Events Industry]

2. Be genuinely enthusiastic.

At networking events, it’s easy to spot the difference between people who are looking to make genuine connections and people who feel “forced” to be there. Sometimes, a simple smile can be a tell-tale sign.

“Enthusiasm is contagious,” Graziano said. “I know it’s an old-school quote, but it’s so true…If you’re [networking], make the most of it and be enthusiastic when you interact with people because enthusiasm is a magnifier. People are very attracted to enthusiasm.”

3. Experiment with different approaches. 

When you muster up the courage to work your way into a circle of strangers and join their conversation, do you prefer to be a fly on the wall until something inspires you to speak up, or do you try to participate and introduce yourself the first chance you get? 

“I would encourage you to try and experiment with a whole bunch of different things,” Graziano said. “And if you crash and burn the first time, that doesn’t mean you’re going to crash and burn at all networking [events]. That just means that particular approach didn’t work, so try another one, and try another one.

“And if you fail in a big group, next time try a small group. And if you fail in a small group, next time, you try bigger,” she continued. “Just experiment over and over and over again.”

[Related: The Z: Things I Didn’t Learn About Work Life in College]

3 Approaches to the Art of 'Circle-Crashing' 

Graziano describes herself as a “circle-crasher at heart” when it comes to networking, or someone who frequently finds herself “crashing” groups of strangers and joining their conversations at networking events.

Mandi Graziano
Mandi Graziano

While circle-crashing typically leads to new connections, the networking tactic can be complicated and nerve-wracking.

“It is so easy for us to instantly go back to our childhood in the cafeteria where you have nobody to sit with, and you get that anxiety of, ‘I’m not going to join that circle because they all know each other and I don’t have anything to say,’” Graziano said.

One of the first steps to circle-crashing, though, is to avoid making assumptions about how people in a circle are connected or how they might react to meeting you.

“Make that assumption that everybody there wants to meet you and that you want to meet everybody,” Graziano said. “Just disarm yourself of that immediately and get in there.” 

Whenever Graziano has the chance to circle-crash at networking events, she chooses between three approaches:

1. The ‘Did You Know?’ Approach

“When you get to the circle, you don't want to crash it right away,” Graziano said. “Let the conversation that's happening finish, wait for an appropriate pause, and then say, ‘Hey, my name is Mandi. Did you know that…Fill in the blanks.”

Some of the best ways to find good “did-you-know” facts are from reading conference agendas, looking at any press releases the organization or company that’s hosting an event may have published and exploring their official social media pages. 

“Little things like knowing where the bathroom is can lead to a connection with somebody,” Graziano said. 

2. The Cool Things Approach

Sales Tales: The Hustle, Humor, and Lessons from a Life in Sales by Mandi Graziano
Sales Tales: The Hustle, Humor, and Lessons from a Life in Sales by Mandi Graziano

To circle-crash using the “Cool Things” approach, the first step is listening carefully to what others in the circle are talking about. Then, highlight something they say by jumping into the conversation to share something related and interesting you learned that day. 

“[It can be] one of the coolest things you love about this conference, or this data,” Graziano said. “Maybe you’re drawing on something from an earlier breakout and you’re asking other people, ‘What cool thing did you learn today? What cool thing are you looking forward to learning? What cool person are you looking forward to meeting?’

“Sometimes the ‘Cool Things’ approach for me is like, ‘Oh my gosh, did you see the super cool way that Visit Montreal put French music in the bathroom and made it super scented?’” she added. “Sometimes it’s literally about the logistics or the aesthetics, but bringing cool things to the circle is a great way [to circle-crash].”

[Related: The Z: Interactive Strategies for Engaging Gen Z Attendees This New Year]

Adventures in Business Podcast with Mandi Graziano and Amani Roberts
Adventures in Business Podcast with Mandi Graziano and Amani Roberts

3. The Direct Approach

“Not everybody is comfortable with it, but I am a big fan of it, and I think you should at least try it,” Graziano said of her direct approach to circle-crashing, which is sharing something that you’re proud of with the group. 

“Say something that you’re proud of and then say, ‘Can I tell you more about it?’” Graziano said.

When she takes the direct approach, Graziano shares that she’s proud of starting the Adventures in Business podcast with Amani Roberts, chief musical curator at The Amani Experience, a luxury music entertainment company (and a recent guest on Courtney Stanley's Dare to Interrupt podcast!). 

“Talk about the things that you’re proud of, and that’s not a humble brag,” Graziano said. “There is nothing wrong with being remarkable and letting people know why you’re remarkable.”


If there’s one thing to always keep in mind when networking, it’s to be patient and remember that connections are meant to last.

“You are building long-term relationships,” Graziano said. “This isn’t going to happen overnight. You may meet somebody today that you just see [once], but then a couple years later you see them again and have another conversation. And then a couple years later, they’re your boss.

“Every interaction matters,” Graziano added. “And kindness is key.”

Logging out with love,

Connect with Mandi
On Instagram @mandi_graziano

Have a question about Gen Z or a topic you’d like to learn more about? Share your thoughts with Taylor at, on Instagram at @tay__writes or on X at @taywrites. 


Mission Statement: "The Z: Planning for the Industry’s Next Generation" is a Meetings Today column discussing the meetings and events industry’s newest and youngest members—the incoming Generation Z. Written by Meetings Today’s Taylor Smith, a member of Gen Z herself, The Z explores how to welcome, work with, understand and plan for the industry’s next wave of professionals while serving as a guide for members of Gen Z themselves, planners and attendees alike. 

Read more from "The Z: Planning for the Industry’s Next Generation."

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About the author
Taylor Smith | Content Developer, Destinations and Features

Taylor Smith joined Stamats in May 2022 as a content developer, destinations and features for Meetings Today. Smith has experience covering everything from travel to breaking news and graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in news and magazine journalism. Previously, she’s written for St. Louis Magazine and worked as an editorial assistant and apprentice for Aubree Nichols, who has been published in premier publications such as The New York TimesELLE and The Los Angeles Times.