Networking Strategies: Making Connections (Part II)

In the previous blog post, we reviewed some tips on how to make the most of your networking opportunities. Here are a few more.

networkingSmall Talk

Small talk is one of those things that you know you need to do but that many people dread. Yet it is essential for success in the professional world. Technical skills and knowledge account for about fifteen percent of the reason you get a job, keep a job, or move up, but eighty five percent of job success has to do with people skills. One key people skill is the ability to engage in small talk. Learning ways to engage others in conversation helps to create a zone of comfort with another person, and helps to create friendship and trust. And just like a sport, you can get better at it if you practice and understand how to improve your game.

The first goal is to engage with another person and create a zone of comfort. Start with openers, which are little phrases or interactive verbal tidbits:

  • “Hi, how are you doing?” “How are you enjoying the conference/ party/ meeting?” “What did you think of the speaker?”
  • “Hi, —–, it’s good to see you again. How have you been? Have you done any interesting traveling lately? I remember hearing you were going to go to Chile to kayak. Did you ever do that?”
  • “Hi, is this your first time coming to this conference/ seminar?“

What openers do is open the door to a more extensive conversation in a way that is comfortable for both people. They are innocuous comments that are open-ended and general, allowing the other person to say something in return that can lead to a fuller conversation. This is one of the reasons that people start by talking about the weather. It is a universal concern for everyone, especially if the weather is bad, because it forms an immediate common bond. “Was your plane on time? Was it delayed because of the storm?” Other common bonds for people at a conference are usually linked to information that helps others: good break-out sessions to attend, good speakers, good places to go for dinner, interesting sights in the city where the conference is held, problems with the hotel (e.g., a broken elevator or a problem accessing the workout facility), or good information about a special service or event (e.g., “Did you know the hotel has a tea time every day in the lobby and the food is great!”).

Be a Giver and a Connector

As you are talking with people you meet at networking events, think of them as new friends, and try to think of ways to make their life a little better. See if you can find ways to give back, because that really helps not only them but you as well. How can you give back? Little gifts of information, connection, support, promotion, and help go a long way to creating and cementing a good relationship.

A gift of information could be a link to an article that might be interesting to a person you got to know at an event. For example, let’s imagine that you have a shared interest: in sustainable foods, in a baseball team, or in traveling to Japan. If you have read an article, blog, or book that was interesting to you on this topic, your new friend might also find it interesting. When you get the opportunity, send an email mentioning how much you enjoyed chatting at the conference, and include the link to the book or article. Try to do that within a day or two of your return.

A gift of connection is an introduction of one person you know to this new person you just met. When you connect people, it helps them, but you also benefit. For example, when I went to a conference of career services providers called the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), I went to a talk by an author who had written an interesting book (Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks by Grover Cleveland). After the talk I introduced myself and we had a fun time talking about where he works and how he developed the concepts for his book. I shared information about my book as well. Then I mentioned that the woman who was the president of NALP this year, Charlotte Wager of Jenner and Block, was a friend of mine. I thought she would really like to know about his book because she helps young associates do better at her firm as part of her professional development responsibilities. Grover was eager to meet Charlotte and I sent an email to both of them to introduce them to each other. A few months later the three of us decided to put together a presentation for next year’s NALP conference. We worked on it together. It turned out to be a terrific presentation and also deepened our friendship.

A gift of support is listening to someone and affirming them. That is something that is all too rare these days. It is a true gift.

A gift of promotion can happen if you are involved in an organization and can offer the person you just met the chance to be a speaker or write an article for a magazine. This can be great for building brand and name recognition.

A gift of help is one where you lend a hand to a project that this person is involved in. These are often non-profit endeavors. For example, you could volunteer to be a judge for the high school moot court competition that your new friend organizes to help students prepare for law school.

Finally, you can give small tangible gifts. A book with a note from you in the flyleaf, thanking the person for spending the time to talk with you, is always a nice idea.

Silence the Inner Critic

Many people who have trouble making connections with others have a harsh inner voice that whispers negative or critical things as they are trying to have a conversation. It would be as if you were trying to play basketball or tennis, but your coach was in your ear putting you down and making discouraging comments. If your inner coach is not supportive, it will be very hard for you to have a positive interaction with someone you just met. How can you stop that harsh inner voice from interfering with your game?

First, listen to the way you talk to yourself. Try to capture the messages you are giving yourself. Are you thinking “I cannot do this,” “This makes me feel nervous and vulnerable,” “I feel afraid that I will make a mistake,” or “I am not good at small talk?” Negative messages come in a lot of varieties. They often originate with a parent or teacher and end up becoming internalized. Most successful people have to have at least a mini-version of the inner critic in order to become successful, reminding yourself to work harder or study more. That kind of thinking is valuable because we prompt ourselves to do better. However, the inner critic can get out of hand with harsh, negative messages that interfere with success. Nowhere do I see this more than when a person is shy or anxious interacting in social settings. Once you understand that your harsh inner critic is interfering with your success, it becomes easier to retrain your inner critic and tame the negative voice.

When you catch yourself delivering a negative message, have a “conversation” with your inner critic. Push back with logic and positive messages. “The only way I will ever get better at this game is to do it and to support myself.” “I have done tough things before and gotten better at it. I can do that again.” “This is going to get easier when I practice it so I have to practice it.”

Finally, reward yourself. Give yourself a gift for having done something difficult, challenging, and outside of your comfort zone. Do you have a favorite Netflix series you can watch as a reward? Do you have a favorite candy? Do you want to buy yourself a small gift? Do it! You earned a reward.

Networking Strategies: Making Connections (Part I)

Networking events and other corporate gatherings are great settings for making critical connections. But if you struggle with how to interact with a roomful of strangers, the following tips will help you make the most of these opportunities.

People NetworkingCome to the Event or Meeting with an Agenda and the Right Mindset

When you are going to a meeting, an affinity group, or an event, if you have a goal in mind, it works better. The goal might be something like: “I will talk with five people here and get to know what they do, where they work, and who they work with.” If you achieve your goal, you can develop greater confidence.

Another goal might be to meet the speaker and have a brief conversation after the presentation with the hope of setting up a longer conversation at a later date. An additional goal might be to see if you want to join the group on a more permanent basis for ongoing networking purposes.

It is also important to have the right mindset. The best attitude to have is this one: “You never know what can happen. Maybe I will meet my next best friend or maybe I will learn something that will make a difference in my ability to change jobs, or find clients.” When people adopt an adventurous attitude they do a lot better when they network. Mindset is everything.

Come to the Event or Meeting Having Done Some Reading on the Topic

When you study up on the topic that is being addressed at the meeting, you will have interesting things to say that add to the conversation! For example, when I went to a conference of career service providers a few years ago, I could see from the brochure that one of the topics for a presentation was whether the following advice is good or bad: “Do what you love and the rest will follow.” Before going to the conference, I read some interesting blogs on that topic and thought about my own reactions to those blogs. Thanks to that preparation, I was able to have more interesting conversations with others who attended that particular talk. I did the same thing with each of the break-out group topics that I signed up to attend.

Learn About the People who Will Be Presenting

If you know the backgrounds and some of the interests of the people at the event you are attending, it will be easier to enrich the conversation. This includes the speakers. For example, once I was speaking on a book tour at a Philadelphia law firm. One of the people in the audience came up to me after the talk and said, “I really enjoyed your remarks, and I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you were a prosecutor in Philadelphia when Ed Rendell was the District Attorney. I actually worked with Rendell when he became the governor of Pennsylvania!” What followed was a lively conversation that would not have happened without that person’s prior research.

Listen Well and Draw the Person Out

The best conversationalists are ones who ask questions, listen well, and follow up with questions that draw the other person out. Sometimes it helps if you think of yourself as an investigative reporter trying to get a story. The story could be the person’s background; you could find out why the person is here and what he or she is getting out of the conference.

Very often the reason people have trouble networking is that they are they are self-focused rather than other-focused. If you are worried about how you are coming across to others, or if you find yourself feeling shy or uncertain, check your thinking. Most likely you are thinking about how you are coming across, instead of focusing on the other person. Change the channel. Don’t think about yourself. Listen to others instead; find out their story.

It is often helpful to realize that you are not the only one feeling this way. Many others are also feeling some degree of nervousness or insecurity. Try to put them at ease. You can even imagine that this is your house or apartment and you have invited them over to chat, and you want them to feel welcome and comfortable.

If There Is a Group, Start with a Person on the Outskirts

If you are entering a room and there are a number of groups engaged in conversation, the best approach is to identify a person on the outskirts of one of the groups. Walk over to that person and put out your hand to shake hands. No one will not shake your hand! Then start the conversation with an opener, draw him or her out, and be curious, following up with questions. Use the ideas above to guide you into a deeper conversation.

Know How to Extricate Yourself from the Conversation

Once you enter into a conversation it can be hard to remove yourself from it. Sometimes it seems rude to leave the other person, so you stay and stay. But if you do that, you limit your networking potential. There are ways to extricate yourself from a conversation. Start by saying how much you have enjoyed meeting and talking with this person, and that you now are going to try to meet a few more people, or connect with another friend who may be here. Then say you hope your paths will cross again. Ask for the person’s card and give your card to him or her. Finally, say that you hope he or she enjoys the rest of the conference. If you are both going to attend a talk, then mention that, or make a plan to sit together. For example, “It’s been great talking with you. I wish we could keep talking but I need to look for a friend of mine who said he would be here. I hope our paths will cross again. Do you have a card? Here is my card too. I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference and I will look for you at the break out session tomorrow.”

Learn How to Think About People Who Are Disengaged or Distracted

People networking in conference settings can be put off by other people they meet who seem to be distracted, disengaged, or inattentive. These people tend to look over your shoulder to see if there is someone else they want to talk with, leaving you feeling unimportant. Perhaps they have a plan to meet someone else, or they have a specific agenda of their own, or they do not know how to network effectively and are uncomfortable themselves trying to talk with people they have not met before. How should you handle this kind of situation? The best way to think about it is to understand that it is not your fault, and to move on. Don’t take it personally. Try to find people you will be able to connect with more successfully.

Know What To Do About a Dominator

There are people who take center stage, suck up all the air, dominate a group, and keep other people from talking. They tend to be loud, and often interrupt. You might find that you are not getting a chance to talk because the dominator has the floor and is keeping all the attention. If you have a good point to make, try to jump in and share your ideas before you abandon the group; you might be surprised to discover that you can get into some fun conversations if you speak up. However, if you have tried, and the attempts are not working, then the best solution is to move on and find another person or group to interact with.

In the next blog post, we’ll discuss additional tips for making the most of your networking opportunities.