I have just attended Berlin Techstars Demo day, a huge networking event. On the plane over I was chatting with my friend about the N word — we all have to do it and we all have our horror stories. This blog is about less horror and more hurrah. Ultimately, we are the only ones who can be the best networkers of ourselves. The following ideas are tools that help me be the most integral, honest, real version of myself I can be when I network.
“What do you do?” really means “Can we please connect?” Everyone has an image of the job you do that is based in their understanding So tell them a story to open it up. “This week I was in Berlin, coaching a bunch of companies to pitch their product to very wealthy investors” is better than “I am a presentation coach”. You throw the bait in and see if they respond.
The follow up plan A
If they come back with a question, answer the follow up (“So what does that involve?”) with a short answer, in a couple of short sharp sentences, followed by a question. “Well startups are run by techies who hate public speaking. I help them get over that. What kind of presenting do you do?” It’s a personal question that requires a response, that will come in the form of a story, not a “Yes/No”. If they answer “No” and there is tumbleweed silence, it is time to go to plan B.
The follow up plan B
The person has either made no comment on the story of your job, or given a binary Yes or No answer. You have nothing to lose. Fire some questions at them, — What do you do (Accountant)? The key is the next question — make it about their answer — a reflective question. What do you enjoy most about it/ what does an accountant actually do?
The comment that reveals respect.
Most people don’t really ever get to talk about their job; t is a huge chunk of their life and you just need to dig a little to open them up. They may think they are boring, so show them they are not. “No seriously, I really want to know. I found budgeting at home hard enough, I don’t know how you do that for a corporate”. By wrapping your story into their job and being genuine with your respect, you are saying to them “I want to listen, I am already connected. Let’s go beyond the superficial networking chat”. It shows that your agenda is to listen, not speak at people.
Linger a little longer.
People aren’t naturally good story-tellers. They get the end mixed up with the beginning, they throw jargon around. When they start stuttering, our tendency is to get distracted by the more interesting conversation a few feet away, for our eyes and mind to wander. Linger a little longer and discipline yourself to focus on their face, their eyes and smile. I can count the number of people on my hand who have lingered on me when I was nervous and talking far too much. Every single one of them I have deep respect for as they believed in me and my story even when I didn’t.
Leave the conversation well
At any networking event, the conversations will at some point end and we will at some point move on. It just happens. So have perspective, and remember it is okay to leave a conversation. Have the confidence to assess yourself — I listened, I did Plan A, plan B, I lingered and now I am moving on. There is no harm in saying “It’s been good to meet you, I hope you have a great evening, I just need to catch up with …”. Your conversation partner themselves will feel relieved. We all need the toilet now and again, or want another drink, but don’t give the “I will be back in a minute” if you don’t want to come back.
And Finally …
My friend describes a networking event where the twentieth person stood up in the room and said “You don’t need to know my name, what you do need to know is …” and then told us one fact about themselves. Be bold, break the unwritten rules of a networking event. If it is a “Introduce yourselves round the table” event then say something daring, tell a short story, break the mould. Have the perspective of “This is my playground and I am not going to die if this goes wrong”.