Founder & Principal of SmartMouth Communications, a consulting, coaching and training firm that creates better messages and messengers.
When I say the word networking, you might experience some form of paralysis, or you tell me you’re terrible at it. Really? You may not like it, it might feel a little awkward, but there’s no need for fear, dread or self-deprecation. Or perhaps that’s not you. Perhaps you experience some excitement at the thought of networking, but you’re not sure you’re maximizing those opportunities.
Networking is nothing more than the first day of college orientation, but it happens on repeated occasions during your career years. Like college orientation, it has predictable ingredients: a group of like-minded people who are seeking to get to know others; nametags and possibly an ice-breaker game; near-universal insecurity with the exception of the few who seem to have it all under control.
No one has it totally under control, though. Some, usually extroverts, enjoy mixing it up, rubbing shoulders, schmoozing and working the room. Most people, however, are not sure what they’re supposed to say and, like college orientation, feel better when they can attend with someone they already know.
These days, as if networking wasn’t daunting enough, most events we attend are virtual. It could be a while until we work a crowded room again, with handshakes and exchanges of business cards. And let’s be honest, while we’re trying to figure out how to maximize the features of Zoom and other platforms, socializing online or inviting participants in a virtual group to connect, is in its experimental phase at best, and awkward and clunky at worst.
So let’s demystify networking with four tips that apply whether you’re at an in-person gathering or reaching out to someone online:
1. Have a set of thoughtful questions. Be more interested than interesting. The best mindset for approaching networking is to think about getting to know others, rather than about getting known. Have some questions in your back pocket that get other people to talk. People like other people who appear to be interested in them — in other words, your interest in others will automatically win you a favorable impression. Once you come up with your thoughtful questions, try them out and tweak if necessary, but otherwise they’re yours to use perpetually.
2. Know your answers. When the tables are turned and people ask you questions, be sure to know how you’d like to answer. The answer to “so tell me a little bit about yourself” is not, “Well, I was born in Akron, grew up in Detroit, then went to …” The answer is, “I’m a builder. I enjoy putting together teams and taking projects from inception to full execution. I do that in my role right now as …” Chronology doesn’t work. Details don’t stick. Take a 30,000-foot view of yourself, come up with something that supersedes any job title or responsibility you have, and convey your value. The details can come later if your audience is curious to hear more.
3. Keep it brief and keep it moving. Just because someone asked you about yourself doesn’t mean you have the floor indefinitely (actually, it doesn’t even mean they’re sincerely interested). If you know your answers, then you’re able to mete out your response in small chunks, gauging interest as you go. It’s best to stay on your game and initiate a back-and-forth volley of questions. However, if you ask a question and the individual thinks they’ve been given the floor indefinitely (a very real possibility), then use your exit plan (No. 4). One-way networking conversations are no fun for anyone — except maybe for the floor hog.
4. Have an exit plan. Just like your thoughtful questions (No. 1), having some easy segues in your back pocket to end a conversation or a thread of a conversation, can be invaluable. For example, “I’ve enjoyed hearing about you/your work. Can we connect on LinkedIn to keep in touch?” Or, “It’s been great getting to know you. Let’s bring some others into the conversation so we can get to know more of the attendees.” Whatever feels comfortable and authentic to you. Even a simple, “Hey, it’s been nice meeting you. Let’s break here and meet some of the others in the group” would work.
Just imagine if you had had a networking strategy for freshman year. It might have given you a bit more confidence. With a little forethought and planning, you can be ready to network one-on-one, in a group, online or in person. Know your questions, know your answers, know how to move through it, how to get out, and you’re ready to go.
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Author: Beth Noymer Levine, Forbes Councils Member