Walking into a networking event can seem like a scary proposition – all those people standing around, and often not a familiar face in the bunch. Who to talk to… and what about?
A previous article discussed ways to navigate a networking event from a logistical standing – as in get there early and don’t immediately head to the food.
Here’s a guide to navigating a networking event by exploring the anatomy of a successful conversation:
Don’t just walk up to the first group you see. Scope out the ideal size group – either one person standing alone, or three professionals who are chatting. (Try to avoid inserting yourself into a conversation of two.)
Then, head over, but don’t just barge into the conversation. Walk up with a friendly demeanor and sort of stand there, waiting to be acknowledged. You will be eventually, but if standing there is awkward, see if you can pick up on the thread of the conversation, find a lull in the conversation and add something of value.
When they greet you, say “Nice to meet you. I’m xx and this is one of my first events with this group. Please, continue the conversation!” That lets them know that you are not trying to usurp the ongoing discussion. Or, it could be that someone was waiting for a change of topic anyway, and you have provided that opportunity. Sometimes, at this point, one of the members might drift away and that’s fine! Everyone is here to meet people so they might have been ready to move on anyway.
Presumably the others will introduce themselves too. Have a couple of ready-made questions prepared. You can ask about their history with the group, or whether they have been to these events before. You can even ask a logistical question — do they know the speaker? Have they eaten at this restaurant? I try to avoid directly asking where someone works because that can either make them uncomfortable if they are job hunting, or sound like you are fishing. The topic will likely come up organically which is great. But a direct question can put them on the spot.
Then, have a brief statement prepared about who you are and why you are there, if you hadn’t used it before.
The Secret to Being a Sparkling Conversationalist
The conversation might then trail off, and here’s your chance to be a “brilliant conversationalist.” How do you do that? By asking questions. People love to talk about themselves, and if you give them the opportunity, they are likely to leave your chat feeling like you were the most interesting person they ever talked to. But be careful not to make it an inquisition. If they are answering with one-word answers, sometimes there’s not much you can do except move on, but don’t bail too soon! Chances are good you’ll hit a topic that speaks to them. Or, pay a sincere compliment if there’s one that doesn’t seem bizarre.
And what if they are the ones asking the questions of you? Seems other people might have heard of this technique. Avoid the awkwardness described above and answer in full sentences, with leading details that will get to the next conversation. Or, answer the question and then turn it back to them.
Example: If they ask how your summer was, give a couple of tidbits, “My family and I went on a camping trip and other than that we’ve been having a ‘staycation.’ Have you ever done that? We were fascinated by all the cool things there are to see and do right here in town that we never take the chance to.”
That’s their cue to say that they recently tried this restaurant or that tourism area or they hate camping or it’s the best thing ever. Then they’ll hopefully add that they went to Brazil or whatever, which is your cue to say, “Wow, how was Brazil? What are the best things to do there?”
Sometimes it’s easy for a conversation to flow, and sometimes it just doesn’t. If it doesn’t, that’s the chance to extricate yourself. Or, even if you’ve had a good conversation you feel it’s time to find someone else to talk to (especially if you’ve heard enough about Brazil, for example).
Leaving graciously is an art of its own. Some easy exit lines:
- Oh, I see so and so whom I haven’t seen in a while.
- Pardon me, I need to make a quick check in phone call before the program starts.
- Excuse me, I am going to go get a glass of water while the bar area looks free.
- Looks like they might be preparing for the program. I am going to get a seat. Where are you sitting?
Just make sure you are polite when you do so, and then actually go do whatever it is you said you were going to!
Before you go, figure out if this is someone you’d like to speak with again, if it’s someone who it might be handy to keep in touch with, or if there was some unfinished business or potential business that would be mutually helpful. Make sure to thank them for their time, get their card and then… two days later follow up. Reference some tidbit of the conversation, “I’d love to talk to you more about your company. And actually, I’d love to go to that new Brazilian restaurant; do you have any time later this month?”
Because it’s what you do with the contact after that makes the conversation worthwhile – no matter how it went at the event.
by Cathie Ericson