Networking with brilliance: The art and science of making connections
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Choosing the frock, the suit, the tie or earrings is the fun part of any networking event, from business breakfasts to award nights to a day at the Melbourne Cup. For most of us, it's all downhill from there.
What is really bring us out in a sweat is tackling the issue of small-talk – meeting, greeting and conversing in a way that is intelligent, appropriate to the occasion and likely to leave a great impression.
Networking is a powerful tool; we know instinctively the next big deal or the next job opportunity can land in our lap in the aftermath of a deftly-handled exchange in the semi-social business event.
No pressure, right?
A quick look at the net will not help you much. Asinine suggestions for conversation starters such as "What's the weather been like up your way?" or "What is your favourite food?" are going to dazzle no one.
Brilliant networkers have a plan.
Great networkers are selective about the events they attend, or the ones they stage for their clients.
If they are hosting the event, supremo networkers select guests carefully based on their knowledge of their clients' preferences, says corporate communications consultant, Marjorie Johnston.
"It's important to think about your objectives. You are really trying to say thank you, and not trying to sell something," she says. "Do things such as brief the people from your company who are going to be present about conversation, who's coming, and how to look after them."
The goal is to make the event memorable and special.
If you are not the host, it is still worth thinking about why you are there. This helps to whittle down the number of events. Fewer events with more effective outcomes is less exhausting and more enjoyable for all but the most extroverted of us.
The size of the spend
Corporate entertainment and networking is expensive, hence the need for clarity of purpose. The trend, in the current environment and possibly for good, is against the lavish affair, says Johnston.
"The days of doing lavish Chateaux de Versailles Christmas party have probably passed and that is a good thing. But a lot of companies have high-level in-house dining facilities and clients like to be invited in to those on occasion. Or you can find a private room that is a bit low-key at a restaurant. It is more about the experience than the $300 bottle of Champagne."
Events that invite participation make for memorable days, provided there is no pressure and alternatives to the main activity. "If the event is focused around an activity, where people get involved – but not a ropes course – people meet in a relaxed setting," Johnston says.
With the set-up carefully considered, here how the great networkers make a lasting impression:
The most-loved opening line
"Hello. I'm XXX." From dating to networking, the best is the simplest. Say hello, shake hands and introduce yourself. The other person will almost certainly return the introduction.
You can use the hello and handshake to join a couple of people talking when there is a small lull in the conversation. If you introduce yourself to a group larger than two, try to pick four rather than three. The group will then most likely break into a three and a pair. Groups of four typically do not last long (believe me, this is well documented) and you may find yourself having to make another introduction too soon, which is exhausting.
An observation, followed by a question, will set the conversation on track. "I've enjoyed tonight's talk. It really made me think. What did you think about it?" "It's a big turnout tonight. Have you attended this breakfast series before?" Try to avoid the most hackneyed of intros: "So what do you do?"
The follow-up can be used as an opening line, too.
Body language is crucial in the follow-up. Keep it open (no crossed arms). Smile. Make eye contact occasionally, but don't stare.)
"The key thing is being present," says Yamini Naidu, a director of corporate story-telling consultancy, One Thousand And One. "Not looking around the room, or looking at their phone, or Facebook. If you are able to just give someone high-quality attention and make it an authentic attention,that is one of the most important things."
Once you have built a bit of rapport with a few comments, asking your companion about the highlight of their week can take the conversation into interesting directions. "You want it to be interesting and fun," says Naidu. "I also ask, what have you been reading because I am always looking for books."
The best networkers do not talk most; they ask questions. "The best thing is being interested," Naidu says. "Quite often it is the listening piece that it is important, rather than talking at 100 words a minute and being witty and entertaining."
Your contact is likely to come away thinking they have had a fascinating conversation with you and will never realise that you asked the questions and they did most of the talking.
However, responding to questions with a "healthy level of self-disclosure" will make the event more fun, says Naidu. "Otherwise networking sounds like hard work."
"When I get asked about the art of conversation, I always suggest they think about it as different levels," says Johnston.
For example, at the Melbourne Cup, level A might be, "Do you think you have picked a winner", or "Which horse do you think will win?" The B level is: "What company are you with, or are you here with a group?"
"The C level is to bring in the work context," says Johnston. "You might say, we have recently merged with such and such a company. If you have A, B, C & D levels in your mind, you can progress the connection depending on the direction that your conversation partner takes. Some people really want to stay light and frothy."
The graceful exit
If the connection is just not happening or has reached a logical conclusion, champion networkers exit gracefully. A simple handshake accompanied by, "So nice to have met you" will suffice, but offering to introduce your conversation partner to one of your own acquaintances, or convincingly observing "I have just spotted someone I need to speak to" will free you both to look for a new opportunity.
Be satisfied with meeting just a few people, or even one. Naidu says, "In the 90s it was all about getting 50 business cards at every event, but these days I try to focus on one or two quality conversations."This story first appeared on Leading Company