This might come as a surprise from a major network news anchor, but I hate to, well…network. I’m an introvert at heart, and the thought of putting myself out there in a room full of people I don’t know makes me feel totally freaked out and out of control. This is why, as dorky as it sounds, I like to plan ahead before I go, whether “there” is a room full of finance wonks or a one-on-one dinner with one of my she-ros (I have many!).
I know that there are a ton of networking “tips” out there and personally, a lot of them can feel icky. But since I’ve tried ‘em all (even the icky ones), I’m here to share the ones that have gotten me the most success.
First things first: be prepared.
Whether you’re one of 1,000 employees or one of 1, there’s no excuse not to have a polished and professional business card. It’s easy to do with the plug-and-chug business card creator on FedEx’s website. Stick to colors and design elements that say something about you without being distracting; so, if pink really is your favorite color, use it as an accent on white and gray cards. Don’t use a photo of yourself; it’s cheesy, and chances are if the person has your card they’ve already met you in person.
Industry events are important for getting to know more people within your world, and I can guarantee that the more events you go to, the smaller that world will become. So how do you get invited to industry events? Make it known that you’re ready and eager. Talk about your passions to friends, colleagues, mentors and acquaintances. It sounds so simple, but just talking about your passions is a great way to move them along. People you talk to might have recon on an event, recommendations for people who might have event connections in that space, or just interesting intros to help you out with. So aside from the obvious research you should be doing yourself, ask around. All it costs you is breath.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Who’s going to be at your event? Do you have a mutual friend? Is there a piece of work or accomplishment the person achieved that you admire? Have genuine conversation starters at the ready. “Oh, do you know so-and-so?” or “Hey, I saw your blahdy blah. It was incredible!” You want to get a sense of who is going to be there and try to prep a little in advance according to with whom it makes the most sense to chat. I’m not talking about putting together a document or getting crazy with your research; you can just do a quick check on your phone on the way over. Don’t plan to dominate their time; 5-10 minutes will suffice. These personal connections will go a lot farther than a quick handshake with every single person at the event.
And by the way, getting there “on time” means getting there ten to fifteen minutes early. Why? Because just like you, every party host is afraid that no one is going to show up. If you’re one of the first to arrive, you will have the opportunity for the host’s undivided attention without and will succeed. So put on your chutzpah pants before you head out the door.
SPEAKING OF “CHUTZPAH,” HAVE SOME
It’s one of my favorite words. Chutzpah is Yiddish but applies to everyone with a can-do attitude. Supreme self-confidence, gall, nerve, guts and balls are all close synonyms. Having chutzpah is having a headstrong, self-assured knowledge that you can and will succeed.
It doesn’t take an MBA to know that “savvy” and “schmoozy” are not the same thing. Here’s how to work the room at your next conference, cocktail party, or career event—the right way:
WHO’S ON FIRST?
Use someone’s first name when you address them. You look more engaged in what that person’s opinion actually is instead of just asking a generic question: “Hey, Anna, did you see any of the Oscars this weekend? Wowza did Emma Stone knock it out of the park again!”
LEAVE IT OPEN
Ask open-ended questions. If you ask, “were you able to find parking?” It’s a “yes” or “no” answer and then the conversation is over. Instead, say something like, “The parking lot is a mess. I’m thinking of taking the bus. Where are you commuting from and how do you get to work?”
BE A PLAYER:
Nothing is worse than starting a conversation about the weather: “Wow, I’m glad it’s cooling down.” “Urgh, this rain sucks.” No, those statements suck. I hear them all the time, and they are a major turn-off. You’re too smart for fluff. Unless you’re actually a meteorologist, think of something more clever. Live in Chicago?
Have some idea about the Bears, Cubs, Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks. You may be a rabid fan or truly not care about sports, but I’m here to tell you that knowing something about sports is probably going to be important to your career. It’s the great equalizer as far as conversation topics go. So get in the game.
LISTEN MORE THAN YOU TALK
This concept applies to any part of your professional life, not just networking. In this particular context, keep in mind that people like to talk about stuff they like (read: not the stuff you like). If you can tap into that, you’ll have a talker. Then, it’s up to you to pay attention; don’t zone out or think about your next question, ask natural follow-ups to keep the conversation going.
I know it sounds so, so obvious, but listen when people talk. I often say to the kids in my family, “You have two ears and one mouth, so listen more than you talk.” Sure, talk about work if it comes up, but never, ever hard-pitch yourself.
Instead, ask questions and pay attention to the answers. You know why people think Bill Clinton is so charismatic? Because he makes every person he talks to, from a head of state to a busboy, feel like the most important person in the room. Do the same (minus the flirty business).
BE SMART, NOT A SMARTY PANTS:
Be ready to be “on.” You are presenting a valuable product: yourself. Don’t make your first meeting your last meeting. Make it a lasting impression in a charming, savvy way. Show your strengths as a cool conversationalist, not a showoff. The trick to being strategic is not to come across as strategic at all.
LET FRIENDS BE YOUR SOCIAL LUBRICANT, NOT ALCOHOL
You might have had a long day, you might be nervous, but stay in control of yourself. Do you need to bring a friend to be your wing-man or -woman? Bring one. He or she can help you socialize. Repeat after me: Don’t. Get. Drunk. If you get out of hand, you will forever be that girl who can’t handle her alcohol and you won’t need to worry about making an impression because you’ll be remembered for all the wrong reasons. And there’s no greater blow to the next day’s productivity than taking too many shots and wasting it nursing a hangover.
DON’T FORGET THE SMALL GUY:
Whether you’re networking at a large convention or just meeting someone one-on-one for coffee, remember that your actions toward the other people in the room speak volumes to who you really are as a person. Be kind and respectful to your waitress, the doorman, the coat check guy, and, of course, interns and assistants. After all, we all got our start somewhere—and your graciousness will leave the impression that you’re willing to work with people regardless of the title on their business card.
GET CONTACT INFORMATION:
I know sometimes it feels awkward, but always get contact information at the end of a good chat. Bring business cards and also get his/her number or email. If they don’t have a card? Casually suggest having them type it into your phone. You can make a self-deprecating joke about it, like, “You can probably type better on it than I can. I’m a serial spell-check violator.” At the end of the night (or when they walk away, if you think you’ll forget), type some of the details you gathered while you were chatting into the notes section of your phone: a child’s name, where the person will be vacationing, or other identifying yet personal pieces of information. That way, when you follow up, you can say something like, “Hey, hope your son, Charlie, is feeling better,” or “Hey, still jealous of the tan you got from going to the shore.”
Speaking of following up…remember, networking doesn’t stop once you leave the event. You’ve gotta make sure those connections you made stick!
Handwritten notes are a must, and not just to the person hosting the meeting but all attendees. Make a point to address each one by name and thank them for their time and energy. If you’re going to send a thank-you gift, remember that “thoughtful” trumps fancy or expensive. If the person you met mentioned being a huge Dodgers fan, send them a Dodgers hat with your thank-you note. Or if they were gushing over the brownies served at the event where you met them, find out who made the brownies and then send them a box. They’ll appreciate your thoughtfulness—and it will be a subtle reminder of your attention to detail.
Make it specific, inexpensive and special for them. I can write an entire book on the presents I’ve given to people after meeting them. They are tokens of appreciation, nothing lavish. I’ve sent a USB drive to someone who said she liked the one I had on my key chain. I’ve sent a bottle of nail polish to someone who said she was thinking about trying a daring yellow manicure. I’ve sent gluten-free snacks to someone who said she had a tough time finding gluten-free food at work. The point here is that it should be personal, not pricey.
CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION
Don’t rush it. Wait a beat before trying to set something up with someone you hit it off with. When you do ask for a “second date,” suggest a specific time and place. The “whatever you want” game puts you in a position of weakness, and no one likes the “which restaurant do you like?” ping-pong match. Even if you are totally wide open, still suggest a couple of specific times and places. It’s helpful, it’s assertive, and it gives the impression that you’re wildly busy (which, hello, you are). For example, say, “How’s Tuesday at ten or three-thirty?” instead of “Got any time next week?” After all, you’re in demand!
Phew, feeling more prepared?
I’ll leave you with this: If you’re still nervous about small talk like I was back in the day, practice by chit-chatting with everyone you encounter throughout the day: your barista, your hairstylist, you mail carrier, whoever. When in doubt, gab it out! Trust me: if we ever get the chance to hang out in real life, you’ll see that I literally talk to everyone I meet.
Keeping that Chatty Cathy energy going will fuel it in others, too and you’ll have a great conversation going in no time. And the more you talk and get to know people, the more of a general rapport you develop and the more you become invested in them and vice-versa, which can pay dividends in unexpectedly great ways down the road.