Building Your Professional Network
One common theme of people of a certain age is they are good at Facebook and bad at face to face networking. The Washington Post just ran a story of a person at a restaurant who, instead of hailing a waiter, he got out his iPhone and called the restaurant to ask about his entrée.
This exact reluctance was apparent to my graduate students at Georgetown University. The students helped me put together a series of exercises and questions to improve awkward social situations. After much revision, we boiled down six basic fears and the ways to overcome those fears. Let’s see if any of these fears resonate with you.
ONE -“I’m Shy”
There is nothing wrong with being shy. In fact, according to Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, 50% of the world is an introvert. Start off with realizing you are in the majority.
Next, nobody is asking you to go to networking events 16 hours a day seven days a week. You may only go to one 20-minute networking event in a week or even a month. So, it is a small slice of your life.
Finally, you should realize that to achieve your financial and professional goals, you will have to be at least adequate at face to face networking.
The way to overcome “I’m shy” is with memorized open-ended questions. This method has worked for introverts for thousands of years. Cicero would start each morning with vocal drills rehearsing his speeches. Winston Churchill would practice in the bathtub for his presentations to Parliament. So, it is not unusual to have programmed responses in a human to human situation.
TWO – “I’m self-conscious”
You wouldn’t be alive if you didn’t have an ability to be self-conscious. However, to be successful in a networking environment you need to be other-focused. One method is to scan the room to see who is standing alone. You can approach that person and welcome them to the event. From there, you can use one of your rehearsed open-ended questions.
Here are some sample questions.
• “I’m with the welcome wagon, thanks for attending the event.” Anyone can use this and it makes a first timer feel welcome.
• “Is there someone here you’d like to meet?” There are social situations where you may have had some trepidation at walking up to the speaker. However, this fear vanished when doing it on behalf of others.
• “Tell me more” This is a line that radio personality Diane Rehm used for years. A great way to transfer the burden of conversation from you to the other person.
THREE – “Stranger Danger”
A healthy dose of wariness will certainly help in your self-preservation. However, as a professional, you get to select the events you attend. If you choose to attend an event for financial analysts at nine o’clock in the morning at a large hotel in a major city, your chances of getting mugged are very low.
The social rules at a family reunion are much different from social rules at a professional network event. When you meet someone at a business event they aren’t coming home with you to sleep on the couch for the next three years. The unwritten rule is that this a business relationship.
From a position as a business professional, you work for an organization that that offers goods or services and the other business person works for an organization that also offers goods or services. It is possible that a relationship can be mutually beneficial. You are at the event to explore these possibilities. If there is not a match, fine.
Once you have met that stranger with one of the basic questions, then you must decide if you want to pursue the conversation. If you want to bail, the use a rehearsed exit line like, “Please excuse me, I must get some club soda.” Then, move on to the next target.
However, if you want to continue the conversation, you may want to use these two conversation deepeners:
• “What’s a good referral for you?” This takes the burden off you and onto the person at the event. I have had people shocked when I ask that question. It is completely disarming.
• “How can I help you?” This is probably the limit of a casual conversation at a networking event. Try to be of value. When you are of value, good things happen.
FOUR – “I have nothing to say”
Having nothing to say is a great strength; the idea in a networking event is to get the other person to talk, not you. If you waltz into a room and announce that you are the greatest and yap for thirty minutes you may get thrown out of a window.
“Nothing to say” is one of the weakest excuses in the book. You can grab just about any teenager and ask about The Tennis Court Oath and French Revolution and you will see their eyes roll. However, ask about their favorite music, and they won’t shut up.
When you meet a person, ask them about their company, their goals, their problems, and they will talk forever.
Do your homework
We have learned a few questions to break the ice with new people. Let’s not forget the homework you do before the event.
Once you find out who the speaker is, look her up on LinkedIn. You may have a connection with a shared university, city, or company. This can apply to anyone else you expect to meet at the event. It always shocks people when you walk up to them and say they look exactly like their photo on LinkedIn.
If LinkedIn will get you the basics, Twitter can get you trending information on the event, the speaker, or a targeted person you may want to meet. Look up them on Twitter and review the past fifty tweets. They may refer to an article that explains the company in greater detail. Tweets are great to quote from in the question and answer period.
One underutilized tool is called BuzzSumo. You can go to the site and type in the title of the presentation, see what is popular on several social networks. From there, you can gain several “fun facts” about the presentation so you are armed for casual conversation.
FIVE – “I feel I am being manipulated”
The classic situation – you are at an event and an aggressive, overconfident sales type starts to talk your ear off. You were always taught to be polite, so you get lulled into making a commitment to a meeting or giving this person a referral just to get rid of them.
Please note, you will be manipulated if you allow yourself to be manipulated. This is where social discipline comes in. You do your research ahead of time, and you know exactly who you want to meet. When you get distracted by an overly aggressive person, fall back on one of your exit statements.
A good professional response might be, “I am sorry, but this is neither the place nor the time for this kind of a question. Please call my office and request an appointment.” This is polite and respectful.
SIX – “What if I get rejected?”
I will not minimize this fear because it exists. However, if you use the correct approach at events, the chances of rejection will be zero. Networking events are long-term propositions. You should attend regularly and become known as a person who helps others. No human on this planet will reject a person who authentically wishes to help. Once that is understood, then people will want to reciprocate and help you.
Stand-off, put off, then hand off
You may run into a person who is not pleasant. Practice the handoff. It goes like this, a person is boring you to death, you look at the person next to you with the name tag, Bill Smith. You turn to your conversation partner and say, “Have you ever met Bill Smith? Well here is.” Then you deploy your exit strategy.
When you were twelve no one handed you a basketball and expected you to make ten out of ten foul shots. The same is true for face to face networking. You need to practice and get you approach and timing down. Feel free to adapt the phrases that seem to work for you. Do your homework. This is the business world where many of the delicacies of normal social life do not apply.
What questions do you use at a networking event?