Have you ever walked into a room that was full of hundreds of people you didn’t know, and despite being energized on the way there, had absolutely nothing to say when you walked in. What about a room with only dozens of people, where drinks were available, and the event was dubbed a networking event, but you still couldn’t conjure up the words or find the energy to be effective? The truth is, all of us have. We’ve all had the experience of being wallflowers and mimes, both at parties and professional events, because negotiating new crowds is hard. And with few upcoming conferences ahead, I thought I’d share a few things I like to think about as I prepare for events.
In my view, having the chance to meet new people can be very rewarding. It’s my opinion that you can learn something from just about any person you talk to, not to mention from someone in a different industry than you or in a senior role in your organization. As such, these events can be a great opportunity to connect with interesting people, share your ideas with others, position yourself at your company, inform yourself to make good professional decisions in the future, and most importantly provide others with insight and information they might have been looking for. As I’ve said before, my theory is that sharing information and giving is the best approach to connecting with new people.
But easier said than done right? It takes courage to walk up to the CEO of your company, or to the well-dressed business man in the corner with ten people anxiously waiting to get fifteen seconds with him. In fact, sometimes doing that is harder than walking up to the girl or guy you’ve been waiting to talk to all year long. Well, here are a few things I like to do to prepare for some of my “networking” interactions.
1. Research. In my view, the more research you do before chatting with someone, the better off you are. If it’s a work event or an industry event, then that’s easy. Find out what the executive’s interests and business needs are. Research what’s going on in the industry. And try to find what previous companies they worked at. And then distill that information to think about the top three or four points are that he or she might care about. If not, then you just have to be creative, using both online and also interpersonal resources.
2. Find Commonalities. I also strongly believe that everyone has something in common with everyone else. And the sooner you can find what you have in common the more quickly you can connect with someone, especially if these commonalities are substantive. So it’s often good to connect on the things you’ve researched and the things that most people might not have caught. In the end, it will show that you really cared about meeting them, which will be a very nice compliment.
3. Have A Good Delivery. No matter what you know or have in common with them, the best way to get them to pay attention is by having the right delivery. For example, if you go up to someone using slang language, speaking far too much or too quickly, or cutting other people off, then your delivery may not be readily accepted. On the other hand, if you’re brief, interesting, and have good timing, you will likely be better off, especially for the more senior people you interact with. If you have trouble making that happen, then it’s usually the case that the more conservative you are the better.
4. Assess The Situation. If the person you meet with has limited time, then you should be careful to see the signals and respect that. Thank them and allow them to use their time as they see fit. Similarly, if the person isn’t interested in your idea, you should take the same approach. Because it may not even be about you but instead he or she may have competing priorities at work or home. And in the end, you have more to lose than gain by sticking around, not to mention coming off as someone who isn’t aware with what’s going on.
5. Be Sincere. Above all, though, my view is that sincerity is king. And I think that your level of sincerity shines through in all the stages I referenced above. Whether you did real research or instead looked up a few peripheral things on the internet. Whether your commonalities are something you actually care about or if they’re just a ploy to get you a seat at the table. Whether you delivered your message with the zeal of a car salesman or whether you were compelling and had real passion behind your message. And then of course, whether you sincerely cared about how they reacted to you, no matter whether that was with excitement or frustration.
I write about this because it’s definitely happened to me a few times before. In fact, it happened just the other week. Where at a networking event, someone came up to me, thinking I’d be a good person to know. And they tried connecting with me, while I was taking part in another conversation. Because I’d made the same mistake many times before with the hope of meeting people. I understood the way of thinking, so I turned and said hello. But it definitely felt disconnected, and the person hung around for a bit longer than was comfortable.
On the other hand, I also had a recent example just about a week ago where I used the tactics above when I went up to someone I recognized. After a flight into O’hare airport, I somehow managed to spot John Haley, the new CEO of Towers Watson (Fortune 500 consulting firm). I’d never met him before, but nonetheless, I’d researched CEOs of firms before and knew a lot of key people at my old firm before they were acquired. Using that information, I recognized him in the airport, went up, delivered a brief introduction – my exact words were “John? Hi my name is Jeremy. I recognized you ….. and thought I’d come say hello” – and sparked up conversation. And fortunately we had a lot in common. I talked about the fact that we’ve both been a part of Watson Wyatt, that we both knew two or three senior leaders who were at the firm, and that I was aware of some of the integration challenges happening at the firm. Assessing the situation, though, I decided I wouldn’t take up too much of his time. After all, he was about to hop on a flight and it’s likely that he had some emailing and calling to do before the flight took off for the east coast. We traded business cards and later a couple of emails. And not only was I sincere in our conversation by focusing more on things like school and family than on work, but also because when I followed up, I provided him with the name of a up-and-coming consultant at Towers Watson that he might want to learn about, rather than asking for any favors myself.
This isn’t to say I relied on the framework above when in the airport. In fact I didn’t. My interaction was more organic in nature, and using the framework above is something pretty natural to me. And further, the interaction could have easily gone much worse had Mr. Haley been busy, or not been interested in meeting or if I had messed up my delivery. Fortunately, timing and energy were on my side that day. And hopefully I’ll run into Mr. Haley again.
Good luck at your next networking event !