Networking. Just thinking about it makes many people nervous. Meet, shake hands, pitch yourself/your business/your idea, ask some questions, repeat, until you’ve made connections with everyone who could potentially help you reach your next goal.
Here's how to make it less anxiety-ridden and more productive:
One of the secrets to successful networking, or any social interaction from conferences to cocktails, is to prepare ahead of time. Figuring out who you’d like to talk to and perfecting your elevator speech are just as important as knowing to ask for an introduction and how to draw others out.
But sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. Someone wants to talk to you in-depth about themselves/their career/their hobbies despite your best efforts to disengage. Or you might latch on to someone or some tidbit of conversation much longer than you should, because you don’t know how to move on. For the latter, it’s hard to overstate the influence of biology.
We are programmed to use communication as a tool to survive and thrive. The problem is that science also tells us that we prefer to be the one doing the talking. People spend 60% of their conversations talking about themselves, and it's even worse on social media, where we spend 80% of our time talking about ourselves. The reason, researchers found, was that it just feels good. So much so that Harvard psychologists discovered that individuals were willing to give up money for the opportunity to disclose information about themselves.
That’s when Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out, who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, says it’s time to learn some strategies to ensure that you won’t be the person who transforms from business professional to blowhard in the space of a few minutes. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Clark says there are four ways to keep the conversation flowing.
Visual cues often play a big part in our first impressions of people. Their posture and gestures inform our opinions as to whether they are trustworthy or not, or if they are warm and cooperative.
Too bad we tend to disregard those powers of observation during a networking event or at a meeting. That’s why Clark recommends looking for cues that your conversation partner is engaged and wants to continue chatting.
Don’t take it personally, she writes. "They may simply need to head to the restroom, and you don’t want to tarnish an encounter by having them think of you as the person they couldn’t get away from." Make sure to be alert to the movement of their eyes from your face to their phone or watch to check the time. Glance down at their feet to see if they are still facing towards you. If they’re not, she says, it’s a sure sign they want to move on.
"When you’re speaking, your sense of time can become distorted," Clark writes. "We all know it’s common for people to ramble when they’re nervous, but it’s harder to pin down that phenomenon in ourselves, because you lose track of how long you’ve been speaking."
She recommends practicing with a friend to learn what a 30- or 60-second exchange feels like. "In the early stages of a conversation, don’t go too far beyond this," she says, otherwise you risk overwhelming your partner with too much information.
If you don’t have a partner to practice, keep this traffic light strategy from NPR’s radio host Marty Nemko in mind the next time you’ve got the floor:
- You get a green light during the first 20 seconds. "Your listener is liking you, as long as your statement is relevant to the conversation and hopefully in service of the other person."
- Yellow light for the next 20 seconds. "Now the risk is increasing that the other person is beginning to lose interest or think you’re long-winded."
- At the 40-second mark, your light is red. "Yes, there’s an occasional time you want to run that red light and keep talking, but the vast majority of the time, you’d better stop or you’re in danger."
Just as our favorite topic of conversation is ourselves, likewise, writes Clark, "It’s harder for someone to become bored talking with you when they’re talking about themselves." She advises asking open-ended questions and follow-ups that allow you to go deeper. "'How long have you lived in New York?' is a decent question, but 'Why did you move to New York?' is likely to yield a much more interesting answer, and new conversational directions," she explains.
Make sure to keep your own replies brief to allow the other person to give you as much information about themselves as possible. In this way, she believes, you’ll be able to focus the discussion on what’s most important to them, and create a better bond.
When you don’t know someone at a networking event, or in the minutes before a meeting starts, people often try to disrupt the silence by pulling from a list of standby small talk questions like "What have you been you working on lately?" Clark warns that tepid answers like, "Nothing much" or "Same old, same old," makes you look boring.
Practice can work here, too, she asserts. Rehearsing replies such as describing a recent trip can lead to discussions of other vacations, while responding with, "I’m working on a great project where we’re trying to completely change how employees around the world communicate with each other." Most people would be curious enough to want to learn more, she asserts.
Additionally, there’s a formula to turn small talk into engaging conversation, according to Anett Grant, president of Executive Speaking. A three-step strategy to match, shift, and pass back can smooth over the conversational bumps by knowing how to ask the right questions and respond with answers that can move the chat into deeper engagement.
Clark recognizes that events and meetings are anxiety inducing and often make people want to fall back into comfortable (but not necessarily engaging) conversational patterns. Practicing a few of these strategies ahead of time can reduce the jitters and make a bigger impact the day of the event.