Next to public speaking, the thing people fear most is NETWORKING and approaching new people at professional events.
And often, even when people make themselves go to these events, they do everything they can to actually avoid making significant professional contacts! Sounds counter-intuitive, but here’s what I’ve found by talking to many, many networking-adverse professionals…
Meeting strangers and starting conversations is really uncomfortable for most people and few really have the natural ability to do it. The 80/20 rule probably applies here whereby 80% of people are not naturally good at it. It is very similar to public speaking where most people don’t realize that it is a trainable skill. So for those 80% of you who are looking for career advancement, and want to use professional networking as a meaningful strategy, here are eight tips I’ve developed that clients have tried and confirmed really work.
Be busy. Offer to volunteer at the event. A really easy way to open conversation is to be in a team of people set to do a task, specifically a task at the event. By sitting at the registration desk you’ll get to know the other members who are doing the same task. You’ll get to meet people as they sign in and get their badges. Easy to make small talk and break the ice in that way. Strangers become colleagues when you’re focused on a task together.
2. Connect with the leaders:
Before going to the event, go to the sponsoring organization’s web site and identify the leaders. Typically, the program chair and membership chair are good ones to contact as they have opted to be in very social roles, and want to grow the organization. They will probably welcome your call and look to impress you and get you involved. With that in mind, ask if they’d look to meet you at the event and make some personal introductions. Be specific about your interests so they can select the right people. Once you get to the event you will not only have these folks welcome you, but you will feel more like you belong, and it will be easier to make new connections as a ‘known’ quantity. And remember to exchange cards and then LinkIn with those you establish some rapport with.
3. Plan to ask the speaker an intelligent question.
Do some prep work on the speaker and or the topic. Come up with at least 2-3 questions and test them out with a colleague. Show you know stuff! Share an interesting anecdote or observation as part of the question. A client of mine took that advice and it really worked. She asked a question that showed she really understood the marketing challenges in her particular industry and a potential employer sought her out afterward. Her comments drove the conversation forward, he invited her to interview at his firm and she is now happily employed. All thanks to a thoughtful question in front of the right audience!
4. Plan some opening lines!
This may sound strange but it really works. Think about the event you are going to be attending. Perhaps you can ask someone if they’ve heard this speaker before. Be prepared with a couple of interesting facts or perspectives to further the conversation. Learn some news about your industry. Before the meeting, Google some companies in your industry and look for news to share. Even share general news. Remember that most of the people you meet will be so pleased to be approached because 80% of them are nervous and uncomfortable, too.
5. Prop Time!
Bring along a relevant or comment-worthy prop! My favorite is always a new book in your field. Have it with you and make sure others can see it. If it’s a publication, carry it with the cover facing out—so others can easily see it. Or approach someone and show it to them—it takes the focus off it being so personal, and moves the focus on to the book—and ask if they are familiar with it or if they’ve read it. If not, tell them why you find it interesting. A prop can also be a very bright clothing item, a themed tie, a large piece of jewelry. By wearing something different you will invite attention. Be prepared with a back story, a reason or something funny to add that relates to the prop.
6. Talk about a problem or pose a question.
In our culture, people naturally like to help one another if they can. Talk about your team’s difficult adjustment to teleconferencing or budget cutting. Ask if they are facing similar challenges and have any suggestions or recommendations. Ask them if they know of other professional associations in the field or new companies emerging.
Share a fact with someone who looks interesting. It’s tough to approach a stranger cold, with small talk, but if you have a relevant fact that others might be interested in, you have something real to say! Do research on tonight’s program. If you’re at an event with a speaker, do some homework. Read the biography of the speaker. Approach the person of interest and offer an interesting fact, such as, “Did you know that Terry Singer earned a master’s degree in music before moving into the computer industry?” That comment will elicit a response and a conversation can naturally flow from it.
8. Observe & Comment—
Unlike the other tips that involve research and planning before the networking event, this one involves paying attention at the event. Look around. Notice the people, the food, the signs, comments you hear, pick up on something…and find someone interesting looking to share your observation with. Perhaps you notice that the event is much better attended than you expected. Perhaps you notice the opposite and you say to someone who looks interesting to you “Given this topic I’m surprised the room isn’t filled to capacity.” And then add why you perceive this to be an important/interesting/relevant topic or great speaker.
Yes, professional networking for most is a learned skill, and with planning and preparation it can go from being painful and unproductive to an enjoyable way to connect with new people, learn, and ultimately advance in your career. Please try a strategy or two from the list and let me know how you do. And if you have any new tips, please send them over and I will share them in a future blog entry.