Walking into a roomful of people, let alone strangers, can be daunting. For the busy person with a desk full of reports, projects and requests, the thought of going to an outside event may seem like a luxury - or a waste of time. The reality is that it's often an obligation that must be met if we want to build our careers and businesses.
Networking has become the generic umbrella term used to describe attendance, meeting and greeting at the no-host bar. But that is inaccurate. The ability to work a room differs from the ability to network (doing the matchmaking, the brainstorming, the follow-up) although they are complementary skills. Together they form the foundation of interpersonal communication that can enhance career growth, business development and visibility among our superiors and peers.
The people who are comfortable in any room exude a confidence, an ease and an approachability that make it okay for others to introduce themselves. Studies show that socializing in a room full of strangers is number two on a list of people's phobias. (Spiders are number one). The reality is that the majority of your co-workers, colleagues or friends from Toastmasters at a social function would probably prefer to be elsewhere. Use the following ideas and recommendations when attending the myriad events on your calendar.
We encounter several obstacles as we enter a meeting, a conference or a fundraiser. Everywhere we go we should think of who might be there and what we have in common with them. At Toastmasters events, the shared interest in public speaking sets the tone for any conversation. At the local chamber of commerce, the business environment is our shared interest.
That is the length of the pleasantry that establishes who you are, why you are there and your interest in meeting the person you are talking to. Stacy Tetschner, executive director of National Speakers Association, expanded on that idea from my presentation for the NSA staff. "I advise my staff to have a two-part self-introduction. One part tells what they are doing for this event or convention, and the second part lets members know what they do at the home office ("I am John, here with the registration desk, but at the office I'm in the membership department").
The self-introduction gives the benefit of what you do rather than just the title. By describing what you do, you give the other person a chance to ask the first question and begin the conversation. Of course, turnabout is fair play.
Equally important is that the self-introduction is tied to the event. How we introduce ourselves at a Toastmasters function is different from how we would do it at a client's fundraiser or a chamber of commerce event or a friend's wedding. By adapting our self-introduction, we give people a context for the conversation that will follow.
The much ballyhooed "30-second elevator speech" can seem like a three-minute diatribe to someone who is stuck in the elevator or at an event listening to a 30-second pitch. Having a 7-9 second planned spiel works better. The point is to be prepared and not get caught off guard and miss the moment.
Adele Scheele, a nationally recognized career expert and author of Skills for Success, suggests that we don't act as a guest at events but that instead we act like the host at every event. Seeing to it that people are greeted, introduced and comfortable is what a good host does. Creating a greeting committee is a good idea because the greeter gets to meet everyone.
If people are not wearing a nametag, an option is to say, "It has been one of those days. Would you refresh my memory and tell me your name again?" This does not take away power, but rather shows honesty and vulnerability and will trigger a connection with anyone who has ever forgotten a name - which includes most of us.
How to gracefully exit a conversation is the number one problem for many participants at social functions. We'll often encounter people who seem to demand a fair amount of time while others are waiting to say hello. Dan Maddux, executive director of the American Payroll Association, tells how he solves that problem. He makes sure that he is available, visible and approachable at APA's World Congress. When he is speaking with a member and sees others who want to speak with him, he will include them with a smile, eye contact and conversation.
"If you will excuse me, I am expected in the (conference room, staff or speakers room, or main hall, etc)" is a legitimate comment that helps him disengage graciously.
Carl LaMell, executive director of Chicago's Clearbrook Association, attends many events to create support for his nonprofit association. He offers another point of view and very savvy advice: "At most events - especially in a fundraising situation - there are some pivotal people to meet. What I learned, and teach my staff, is that it's essential to meet those pivotal people. And it's equally important not to hog their time. Because many people don't exit conversations comfortably, it's our responsibility to leave in a timely fashion that leaves a good impression. We can then follow up with a note, a call or email and set an appointment for a meeting."
Nametags generally provide enough information to start a conversation. The guest wearing a Jerry Garcia or Save Our children tie or the eye-catching necklace gives us something to notice and break the ice. Yes, it is small talk, which, according to Michael Korda, best-selling author of the books Success and Power, leads to bigger subjects.
Often we will make a casual, offhanded comment to others because of a shared circumstance, such as waiting in the buffet line, walking into the general session or waiting at a registration table. While attending a convention in San Francisco and watching two attendees in action, I turned to the fellow behind me and said something about the activity. That fellow was Bob Levy, executive director of the Mortgage Bankers Association of New Jersey. He responded with a very funny remark that kicked off a conversation. After a pleasant exchange we then introduced ourselves. That was over eight years ago. I have since spoken several times at his conference, and we remain in touch.
Breaking the ice also means that we seize the opportunity to say something and not wait for the most brilliant remark to come to mind. By the time we gather our brilliant thoughts, the person we wanted to meet has moved to another part of the room and the opportunity has passed. A smile and "hi" or "hello" work best.
A thought to remember: The roof is the introduction. If we are in the same room, hotel, convention hall or meeting, we have something in common.
Maintaining a conversation with someone who is not comfortable chatting can be a drain. Although some people advise to "ask a lot of questions so that people get to talk about their favorite subject: themselves," that is not how conversation is built. In fact the barrage of questions sounds and often feels like an interrogation. Instead, there are three components to a good conversation: asking questions, making observations, and revealing some relevant and appropriate information. The magic is in the mix. Conversation is the key to connecting and building rapport and relationship.
Reading the local newspaper as well as a national paper provides more than enough information to start and build conversations. The issues that face the workplace merit conversation, set the tone for the camaraderie, shared resources and interests, and for the problem-solving we can accomplish with our colleagues. Current events, sports teams, new movies, the latest Toastmasters event are all possible topics.
Allison Fortini, a brand new real estate agent, was being interviewed by a San Francisco homeowner who wanted the "right" person to sell her home. When Allison asked her if she was a native San Franciscan, instead of just saying no, the seller mentioned she grew up in Yolo County, California. "Funny coincidence, I'm from Yolo County also ... Davis, California." The common connection yielded Allison her first listing.
According to my research for The Secrets of Savvy Networking, the most effective networkers have three traits that make them stand out from the crowd. Here is what they do:
1. Acknowledge gifts of leads, information, time, referrals, advice and support. While it can be done via e-mail, that is a quick and easy shot. To be memorable, appreciation is best expressed with a pen and stationery.
2. Stay in touch with others when you need nothing from them. The call or e-mall from someone who always needs something is not savvy networking; that is "using" others. Networking is like baseball: If you don't touch base, you're out of the game!
3. Follow-up is the creed of networking. It means to do what we say we'll do when we say we'll do it.
When we bring the stories of who we are (those we know, things we like) to what we do, we're more interesting and we give people the subjects that will spark more lively and connected conversations in every room. Additionally, if we adopt the top traits of the savviest of networks, we build our network of sources and resources that is essential for contributing to our careers and enriching our lives.