We often hear that networking is essential to business success. Yet to be honest, few of us are good at it.
We either avoid it altogether, or when we enter a face-to-face networking situation, we fail to engage and make the most of the opportunities it presents.
Why is that?
A key reason, I believe, is fear - a simple fear of conversations. This may seem far-fetched. However, social anxiety is more common than most of us realise. Just as research has shown that many people fear public speaking more than death, the thought of initiating multiple conversations with complete strangers can fill some nervous systems with fear.
It’s a concern you can easily overcome, however, if you remember that most people you meet are in the same situation, and also actually enjoy talking about themselves. Your task is simply to encourage them.
Here are a few techniques:
Introduce yourself with a smile
The smile comes first. When you approach someone at a networking event with a big, genuine smile and an outstretched hand, they’ll welcome you into a conversation 999 times in a thousand.
If that one occasion in a thousand occurs and you sense rejection, the issue is generally with the other person, not you.
Just move on to the next person.
You’ll never be lost for conversation topics if you have a few questions prepared beforehand. They don’t need to be profound questions. Just open-ended enquiries that encourage your conversation partner to elaborate on their own life, work or pastimes.
In fact, they can be as simple or trivial as “What kind of work do you do?”, “What kind of business do you run?” and “What did you do on the weekend?”
It’s usually best to be superficial at first. If the other person appears willing to open up as the conversation continues, you can then ask more personal and more complex questions.
A big mistake people make at networking events is trying to talk the other person into submission. This rarely works. What works is active listening. If possible, allow the other person to say twice as much as you do. Get to know them. Find out what gives them pleasure and pain in their business and personal life.
How can you do that?
Just ask them. They’ll appreciate your genuine interest. And don’t forget to respond positively, with your voice, your expressions and your gestures. Nod when you agree with something. Smile when they say something light or humorous. Maintain eye contact as naturally as possible. Add simple, encouraging comments such as “Really?”, “That’s interesting,” or “I agree.”
'Cherry-pick' words and phrases
One of my favourite techniques to keep a conversation going and make it interesting is to ‘cherry-pick’ some of the other person’s words or phrases that are most interesting to you.
For example, your conversation partner may say:
“I spent the weekend with my family, gardening, going to the beach, helping with homework.”
You notice the word ‘beach’, so you ask.
“The beach sounds like fun. Did you go surfing?”
This can open an interaction about surfing. As you pick up on different words and phrases, you can eventually reveal activities and pastimes of common interest.
Most people like the sound of their own name, so take note of the other person’s name and use it liberally in your conversation with them. This will also help you remember the person later. Some business commentators suggest taking notes about the people you meet during an event.
I find that just using a person’s name repeatedly in conversation is a useful memory tool.
Remember your elevator pitch
In a previous article, I wrote about how to prepare and deliver an effective elevator pitch.
When someone at a networking event asks what you do, have a few words prepared that explain the problems you solve, the value you deliver, the credibility you have for doing what you do, what makes you different and how the other person might benefit from what you do.
Generally, it’s best not to embark on your elevator pitch until you’re asked to say something about yourself. When you are asked, however, a finely-tuned elevator pitch, delivered naturally, can be a powerful aid in furthering the conversation and developing a relationship.
Introduce people to others
Once you get to know someone at an event, take every opportunity you can to introduce your new acquaintance to someone else.
Many will appreciate this gesture, as they may be hesitant to introduce themselves to others. It will also enhance their perception of you, your status and your potential worth to them.
Acknowledge when the conversation has ended
Occasionally, despite your best efforts, maintaining a conversation is difficult. You may find that you and the other person share little in terms of interests or values.
Sometimes a conversation just runs out of steam. It’s all right. There’s no rule saying you have to persevere. Just smile, tell the person you enjoyed meeting them, and suggest you should both get to know some of the other people at the event.
Practice these techniques and you should never feel uncomfortable at a networking event again.