By Maggie Gover
Maggie Gover is Director for Professional Development at the University of California, Riverside.
Networking can be awkward. If you have ever asked yourself these questions, here are the answers along with some tips that might actually make networking an enjoyable experience!
What can I do to prepare for this?
The answer to this depends on the event. For some, you might be able to look up who is coming and think about the people who you might want to meet. For other events, you might not be able to do that kind of research. In general, here are my tips for preparing for a networking event. Get some rest. No one has a sparkling and charming personality on two hours of sleep and stress. Eat before you go. You don’t want your stomach to be growling or to be too distracted by the appetizers to concentrate on what others are saying. Dress appropriately yet comfortably. Appropriately will greatly depend on the type of meeting and its location, but comfortable clothing is key. This also applies to shoes. Take business cards. Don’t have any? Get some printed. Have a strategy for collecting business cards. You need a pocket, a purse, or something which will allow you to show that you care about the business card that was just handed to you. Think about what it is that you want from networking with this group. If you aren’t sure, read the answer to “what am I doing here?” Here is the big one. Practice telling a few interesting or funny stories about yourself that you can tell in one minute or less. They must be professional, appropriate, and illustrate some aspect of yourself that you like. They should not be disparaging to others but at the same time you shouldn’t sound arrogant. This is the important part: you are NOT rehearsing these to use them. You are simply practicing talking and coming up with appropriate things to say in different situations. You are refreshing your memory about the different interesting things you have done. DO NOT shoe horn them into the conversation.
What am I doing here?
You are networking. What does that mean? It means that you are making what I like to think of as “professional friendships.” These are friendships with people who know that you can create an Excel dashboard in five-minutes flat but don’t necessarily know that you had an imaginary friend named Ariel when you were five. These are friends who might know that you spent two years researching in Thailand, but not necessarily that you were afraid of the dark until you were sixteen. Semi-personal things are ok as well, as long as they are not going to make others uncomfortable. If people know that you are obsessed with anything on the Science channel, that is fine if you are comfortable sharing. Think about how you made friends in college, or in your graduate program, or in your current job. This is what you should be doing here. The people you talk to should not feel like they are on the hot seat or that they are in an interview. Let the conversation flow naturally, remember things about people, and say hello when you see them in the future. The really good news is that the more you network with the same group, the more they will come to know about you and the more you will be able to gauge what will make members of that group uncomfortable.
What did he just say?
I can’t really help you with this one. I don’t know what he just said. But I do know, if you have ever asked this question, you were not “in the moment.” Almost all situations can be improved by simply being “in the moment.” This means you have to actually listen to what people are saying. Stop trying to remember the witty story you were going to tell (I told you not to use it anyway!) and stop preparing what you are going to say next. Stop wondering if you have spinach in your teeth, if you are sweating too much, or how long you have to stay until you can politely exit. I know you have. I am telling you to stop it. Avoid foods that might leave messes and trust that a Good Samaritan will tell you if you do have spinach in your teeth, and then, enjoy the moment. Listen to what people are actually saying. Respond to that. There is nothing more jarring that being part of a conversation where one person finishes a funny story about her new puppy to be answered by another who asks if there are any job openings at her current firm.
What should I say?
This would greatly depend on what s/he just said. So, the first advice is to listen to what others are saying and let conversation flow naturally. However, there will be natural lulls in the conversation. It might be helpful to have a few questions prepared that might be appropriate for many situations in which you might find yourself. For example, if you are going to a networking event with a specific company, you could say, “I notice you just had your annual meeting/charity event/company picnic. How was it?” If you are networking with a professional association, you can ask how long the other person has been involved and what their favorite events are. If it is a general association, like an association of young professionals or professional women, you can ask the first date questions: what do you do, where do you do that, how do you like it, etc. In general, a brief silence is okay. It allows small groups to break up to meet and mingle with other people. Avoid conversations where you feel like you are listing your resume. If you have a story that is appropriate for the situation, tell it. Keep it short and engaging, and try to highlight the parts of the story to which others can relate. At all times you want to engage others in a conversation rather than simply listing things or interviewing people.
Do they care about what I am saying?
This requires a fair amount of reading of body language. If people are looking into your face, smiling and nodding, they are engaged. If you tell a story and immediately someone else tells a story that is related in some way, that is a win! When your audience starts seeking other people to talk to, they are probably no longer engaged or are simply ready to move onto another small grouping of people. After all, everyone is there to network.
Is it ok for me to leave now?
Try to stay for two-thirds of the event, or until you notice others have started to trickle out. Instead of leaving after your first conversation because you are feeling particularly fatigued, excuse yourself to take a break, and then dive right back in. You do not need to be the last one there, unless you are having a fantastic conversation with someone, but you also don’t want to be the first one to leave. This isn’t because anyone would notice, if you are new to this group, I am sure no one would. This is because you need to stay for a while to get everything out of the experience that you can.
How do I gracefully make an exit?
There are three scenarios. In the first scenario the person you were talking to becomes engaged in another conversation. In this case, you can briefly interrupt by touching the person’s forearm and saying, something salutatory, such as “it was nice talking to you.” If you are in a conversation that seems to be waning, excuse yourself. You needn’t give an excuse, but you can if you have one. If you have to go talk to another organizer about something, that is fine. The third graceful exit for the savvy networker is introducing the person you are speaking with to another person. As they begin their conversation, you can gracefully exit. When you are leaving a networking event, thank the organizer if there was one.
Did it work?
It will only “work” if you do some work afterwards. Communicate with everyone from whom you received a business card. You can connect on LinkedIn or you can simply email. Try to remember things about everyone you talked to. You can make notes on the back of business cards or you might be able to remember people when you do look up their LinkedIn profile. The most important thing is to continue to networking with the same group. You will be getting to know people better, they will be getting to know you, and eventually, the networking events will be something you enjoy!