At a recent networking event a twenty-something told me he was very relaxed when giving presentations to a group but uncomfortable with the expected socializing ahead of time. Most would interpret the word “uncomfortable” as “fear of networking.” Let’s propose some potential roots of this situation and then suggest remedies.
To paint the American education process in broad strokes, it typically begins with learning facts, then moves on to analytical thinking and then, at an advanced level, ends with some kind of public speaking endeavor that may involve defending a written hypothesis. Some big ten master’s degree programs allow students to select a verbal defense rather than a written dissertation. When a millennial hits the business world, it is possible they have been trained in public speaking and writing, but have no experience in face to face networking.
When it comes to speaking, one characteristic for professional speakers is that the audience doesn’t know where the speaker is headed; some speakers don’t know themselves. One crutch professional speakers use is to set up an abbreviation or acronym “for the benefit of the audience.” In reality, the structure is for the speaker to use to guide his talk.
For example, the well-known public speaker Jay Baer has a book on social media listening called Hug Your Haters, he has a chapter called H-O-U-R-S, which is a fractured acronym which stands for Be Human, Use One Channel, Unify your Data, Resolve the Issue, with Speed. It seems to me that he structured this as a speaking module first and then adapted it as a chapter for his book.
Well, if a forced acronym works for social media listening, why can’t it work for face-to-face networking? Everyone knows you have to be A-L-E-R-T to be good at face-to-face networking.
Never walk into an event without knowing the lay of the land. Who is sponsoring the event? How much information will you be given ahead of time? Who will be there? Competitors? Allies? Where do you fit? At an event with marketing and sales people you may see sparks. The marketers are fascinated by numbers; the only number a sales person wants to talk about is their bonus number.
Most events have a short window at the beginning and end for networking. You must treasure these moments and work them methodically. It is not a matter of giving out business cards, it is establishing relationships with the people there. It begins by developing a rapport with the audience. This concept has been documented by a book called “How to make people like you in 90 seconds.”
When you walk into the room please realize that every other person feels as awkward as you. They normally will scan the room and walk over to someone they know. This is normal human behavior. However, the idea is to meet new people, not to renew acquaintances. This can start with the person handing out the badges. You may ask, “I noticed that Ralph Nowels was registered for the event. I’d love to meet him. Has he arrived yet?”
Remember the professional speaker, they have memorized modules and phrases that they can fall back on. There is no rule against having a set of questions to ask strangers at a networking event.
One approach is to have six “standby” questions and six “variable” questions for the event of the day. Your six standby questions can be used an any event. Examples may be, “What are you seeking to learn here today?” or “Are these events valuable to you?” Please remember that your goal is to meet several people, engage in polite conversation. If possible, once the conversation has been established, and it is appropriate, you ask the disarming question, “How can I help you.”
The six variable questions pertain the specific event, topic, or speakers. This is where research can come to play. You may want introduce yourself to a stranger and say, “It was considerate for Higher Logic to sponsor this Meet Up.” “Did you know that the speaker Julia Lim went to Harvard and MIT?” This takes the focus off what to say next, the focus is on a third party.
For example, most networking events you attend should give you a list of the speakers ahead of time. Some will even give you the names of the others who are attending. Last night I was at a “Meet Up” that listed the people who were speaking and the people who were attending. LinkedIn gave a great biography of each speaker. Learning about the background of each speaker gives you an ability to ask an appropriate question that can lead to engagement after the presentation. For example, if the speaker has worked at UUNET, then you may be able to ask a question related to her experience at UUNET.
Target acquired. You walk up to Ralph Nowels and start a conversation. Right next to her is a person who is not speaking to anyone. You reach out to the stranger and say, “Have you met Kim?” This expands the conversation to include a third party. This is an excellent technique because you can bail or pursue. “Great meeting you, Kim, may I have a card? I have to speak to Mike Donnelly over there.”
There are no miracles to face to face networking. The idea is to consistently attend a wide range of events and not get bogged down with counting the number of cards you have in your pocket when you leave. The best approach is to prepare for meeting new people, ask how you can help, and then do meticulous follow up.
The Oakmont Group’s John Gilroy has been awkward at networking for decades. Somehow, he has managed to survive. Please contact us if you would like to learn more improving your network skills. We offer a wide range of topics that range from “The Unspoken Rules of Face to Face Networking” to “Work Life Balance.” 703-627-3830 firstname.lastname@example.org