With a Little Work, Business Networking Skills Can Work for You!
By Debra Fine
Although you may enjoy your work, you may hate going to business-related social events with clients, colleagues and others in your field. You are not alone. Many people feel anxious and nervous when entering a room filled with unfamiliar faces, but you no longer have to be one of those people. These events can be great opportunities for developing new relationships and broadening business networks, plus they can be fun and enjoyable. Networking skills are essential for any business professional striving for success.
Many technically oriented professionals, engineers, lawyers, and CPA’s included, are great at the technical aspects of their jobs, but often find it difficult to strike up a conversation with an executive from the home office during the ten minute coffee break. The pressure to keep a conversation going once it has started is often enough to keep many people from ever even saying hello. Ask yourself if you are a habitual abuser of these “networking bad habits”?
- In a room full of unfamiliar faces you find the one person who looks familiar and stick with that person for the duration of the event.
- At a business-related social event you make the food table or bar your permanent home.
- After being at an event for an hour you still find yourself wandering the room saying hello to many different people without ever engaging in a full conversation.
The one thing these “networking bad habits” have in common is that they limit your ability to meet new people and build new business contacts and friendships. Learning networking skills can break you of these bad habits and turn uncomfortable gatherings into opportunities for success.
The first step to becoming a networking master is to remember that conversational skills are learned. People are not born great conversationalists, they become great conversationalists. Anyone can become an expert at networking with a few tips and a little practice. The second step is to realize the importance of conversational skills. Often, professionals in technical jobs overlook the significance of developing business relationships. The truth is that the ability to engage a co-worker or business contact in a social setting can be just as beneficial as learning the latest innovations in ergonomics or supply chains. In order to develop business friendship you must begin with small talk. Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship; Small talk connects us all and is the key to leaving a positive impression with everyone you meet. It can mean the difference between building a new relationship or simply, yet again, exchanging business cards.
Here are some techniques you can employ at your next conference, meeting or networking event to improve your skills:
Stage One: Meeting New People and Initiating New Conversations
- Always say hello and greet people warmly. Be the first to say hello to new people. Waiting to be “properly” introduced may result in no introduction at all. Remember to shake hands and always smile. Don’t rush introductions. Take your time and show sincerity when meeting new people.
- Use an icebreaker. An icebreaker not only provides a way to meet new people, but also helps jumpstart conversations. For example, using an icebreaker such as “Tell me about the type of work your firm is involved in” instead of simply saying hello can lead to a fruitful conversation, rather than an uncomfortable silence. Some other valuable icebreakers you might use are:
- “Bring me up to date on your latest project.”
- “What do you find to be the most enjoyable aspect of your job?”
- “Tell me about your history with ________.”
- “How did you come to find yourself in the health care field?”
- “How did you come up with that idea?”
- Learn, remember, and use a person’s name. When meeting a new person, make a special and conscious effort to remember his or her name. Repeat the name to yourself after hearing it and use it often during conversation. Be sure to use the name a person gave you. Don’t ever assume that someone uses a nickname. My name is Debra and calling me Debbie, a name that makes me uncomfortable, is a sure path to networking disaster. Using a person’s name throughout a conversation not only helps to build a personal connection with that person, but also demonstrates your caring and attentive nature.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. Before attending a hospitality suite, meal or business event take a couple of minutes and think of at least three conversation points or topics. These topics can be invaluable during an awkward pause or uncomfortable silence. Try to match your topics to the event and those attending. For example, discussing an innovative article on lean management may be a great topic to use at a conference, but might seem out of place at a golf outing.
Stage Two: Keeping the Conversation Going
- Show an interest in others. Great conversationalists are set apart by their ability to make any conversational partner feel like the only person in the room. Everyone likes to feel special and people, even very shy people, like to talk about themselves, so let them and show a genuine interest in what they are saying. In our fast-paced society, taking the time to show an interest in another person is a rare and valued commodity.
- Be a good listener. Maintaining eye contact is one easy way to demonstrate that you are listening. Giving verbal and non-verbal cues, for example, nodding your head, or using such phrases as, “tell me more”, “that sounds frustrating” and “what happened next” also indicates that you’re involved in a conversation, even when simply listening. Being a good listener also supplies you with information that you can use to keep the conversation going.
- Dig Deeper. Take your time during conversations and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions that dig a little deeper. For example, if someone just described their company’s new IT policy, by asking about the previous policy or what the company hopes to gain by implementing the new policy, you are showing your interest in the person and their work while keeping the conversation lively.
- Be appropriate. Certain topics and conversations may be suitable for one event and off limits at another. Always err on the side of caution. If you even suspect that a topic may be inappropriate chose another “safe” topic instead. Also, be wary of brining up personal relationships or family issues, you may end up regretting it.
- Don’t dominate the conversation and don’t let others dominate it either. Try to give everyone a chance to speak in an interaction. If someone else is stealing the show, wait for a pause or break in conversation and then change the direction of the conversation or include someone else in the conversation who hasn’t been heard yet by asking “what do you think?” or “what is your opinion?”
- Respect others and their opinions. Not everyone agrees on everything. Remember that people are entitled to their opinions, and possible disagreements may even be a gateway to a fruitful conversation.
Stage Three: Exiting the Conversation
- Be prepared with exit strategies. You will want to mingle with several people at an event and knowing how to effectively leave one conversation and move on to another is all part of successful networking. The more people you can effectively network with at an event, the more opportunities you have to forge new relationships and contacts.
- Wave the white flag. Using statements such as, “I need to wrap this up in a couple of minutes, is there anything else you would like to tell me” or “I have to speak with Marcy before the next panel starts. What did you ultimately decide to do to solve that problem” can signal your need to finish the current conversation and converse with someone new.
- Make a lasting impression. Once the time has come to leave a conversation leave with a smile and handshake. Tell the person how much you enjoyed speaking with them and establish a way to make contact in the future. After you leave the conversation you may want to make a mental note of the person’s name and other pertinent or interesting information that you can use when you speak with that person in the future.
Whether you are at your firm’s holiday party or a conference on the latest technology, effective networking can be your key to building positive and lasting professional relationships. Every new face is a new opportunity for successful conversation. Break yourself of your “networking bad habits” and embrace the art and possibilities of small talk. The next time you find yourself at a business-related social event, don’t hide by the food table or wander the room aloofly, use your networking skills to meet and enjoy new people and conversations. By combining the tips provided in this article with a positive attitude and a little work, networking can work for you.