This is the third in a series of articles by Alejandro I. Sanoja and Matt Avery
Create a habit to overcome the awkwardness of starting a conversation with a stranger.
Alejandro: Just hearing the word “networking” can create tension for an introvert. In business, and from day one of an MBA program, you will always hear that the key to being successful is networking. But few people explain how to network and the specific steps you need to take. As an introvert and OCD person it was very hard for me to not have a methodology or steps that I could practice to improve at the activity of talking to people and making connections.
After attending more than 100 networking events in the past year, and reading several books on the topic, I understood that most people feel the same way. Everyone feels it is awkward to go talk to strangers. I also understood that when you are at an event everyone is willing to talk, that is why they go to these events. You just need to say “hello”.
Think about it from your perspective: if you go to an event to network and someone walks up to you to say “hello” it would be great because that could start a conversation. If someone doesn’t like it or reacts bad when you come up to them and say “hello” then you are probably better off not talking to that person. One thing that I did to start getting more comfortable with that act of greeting strangers was to speak with every person that I was buying from (grocery store, coffee shop, restaurant, etc.) by the name on their name tag. By doing this, the act of saying hello to a stranger became second nature and not an awkward situation.
Matt: There is some amazing advice I heard on how to approach conversations from Bill Caskey and Bryan Neale, hosts of the “Advanced Selling Podcast.”
Believe in abundance.
Let me explain, many people attend networking events because they want something, i.e. an internship, job opportunity, or to meet a “high-level” person. Conversations feel forced, fake, and awkward when people are looking for something.
Instead, think about your abundance. We live in the most privileged time in history and if you put in work you will likely be successful. In fact, if you are in an MBA program, you are already successful. You should realize you are coming from a place of abundance and any networking event is just another opportunity to meet interesting people and make valuable connections.
Think of all of the areas where you are blessed and then let the stress of meeting new people fade away. When you are at an event, take a deep breath, relax, realize your place of abundance, and simply speak to the person next to you.
After you get past the initial stage of introducing yourself then move to maintaining an interesting conversation.
Maintaining the conversation.
Alejandro: The concept of “vertical questions” is one of the best pieces of advice I have received. Thanks to it, I started to understand the power of questions and the meaning of “making it about them”, i.e. about the other person you are talking with (I’ve also previously talked about the lesson in powerful questions learned from Cal Fussman). The concept simply means to ask questions that go deeper into the previous question or the topic that you are talking about. And the beauty of it is that 80 or 90% of the talking will be done by the other person. Your only job is to be interested and curious about the other person’s story.
Here is an example of vertical questioning:
A: How did you find out about the event?
B: I found out through my company
A: Nice, it is great that your company encourages you to network. Where do you work?
B: I work at X
A: Excellent, how long have you been working there?
B: I have been working there for about 8 years.
(You can then ask about their position, how did they start working in that company, etc.)
The tricky part is to not make it an interrogation, so before each question you should try to add a bit of context. The goal with vertical questions is to learn as much as you can about the other person by being curious and interested in them, and hopefully you will be able to find a common ground or topic that you are both interested or passionate about which will allow you to make a meaningful connection.
Matt: While you are speaking with a new acquaintance focus on interesting items instead of mundane expressions. Pull something from your conversation that others never think of asking, does this person practice Mixed Martial Arts, are they an artist, what is their favorite sports team, etc.?
During one conference I went to, I showed up in the morning and was eating breakfast with other attendees. I started speaking to the person next to me and was joking with him because my favorite football team had just beat his the past weekend. We were having a good time, then he looked down at his watch and said, “shoot I need to get in there.” By in there, he meant he needed to give the Keynote Speech at the digital marketing event we were at. Turns out he was one of the first ten employees at Twitter!
The point of the story is to be fun and do not get so worked up with asking the same questions everyone else asks. You will stand out and make great connections with people when you see them as individuals who have diverse backgrounds. The only problem is that I did not secure their contact information which we will describe below.
Always Be Closing (ABC).
Alejandro: “Closing” is another word that can feel uncomfortable or create tension for most people because it reminds them of sales. And no one likes to be sold, but everyone likes to buy! Let's face it, if you have already taken the time to go to the event, go past the awkwardness of talking to strangers, and ask good questions to keep the conversation going . . . you might as well take actions that will let you keep the connection and develop it after the event. That is what I mean by closing.
If after a couple of minutes, and good questions, the conversations gets interesting then stay there enjoying it. But if that is not the case you may want to make the most out of your time and try to make a meaningful connection with someone else.
When I first started networking I would get stuck into conversations that would not add value for anyone in it. Then by watching other people I understood that it is okay to end conversations because everyone is there to make the most out of their time by finding that interesting and meaningful conversation.
The best way to politely end a conversation, in my experience, is to ask for their business card. Once you get it say “is it okay if I connect with you on LinkedIn” and then just raise your hand to go for a handshake (the other person will do the same) and say “thank you, it was great meeting you”. It is as simple as that, no excuses, no lies about going to the bathroom or going to get a drink.
The trick: If you do it too quick (only 5-8 minutes into the conversation) it could come off as disrespectful and that you don’t care about the other person. If you take too long you might be losing time of the opportunity to start that great conversation that leads to a meaningful connection.
Matt: When you are closing think about the other person. How can you help them? Could you connect them to another person to advance their career or send them a book that you think would help in their pursuits?
Do not think of closing as you getting something from them. Instead, you genuinely want to keep the conversation going as business is built on relationships. You could help them just as much as they might help you in your career. Think of closing as the extension of your initial conversation, yet if you do not get their contact information then you cannot move the dialogue to the next level.
I’ll just say it, even though most won’t . . . closing professionally is the same as asking that girl or guy you are interested in for their contact information. If you are single, meet someone you are attracted to, and have a great conversation then you likely want to move forward. Well, you would ask for their contact information.
Similarly, with business, you will be attracted to people’s professions, experiences, insights, and advice. Do not lose out on the opportunity to learn more and make sure to get their information to speak later.
It’s as easy as saying, “this has been fun, do you mind if we connect later?” I have never heard someone say no and with advanced technology you can usually just grab your smartphone to connect at that moment. Most things in life are actually simple and just take a specific process to complete.
If you want to meet new people: say hello, ask questions about them, and then close the conversation by asking to connect on LinkedIn - that’s it!
A next crucial step is following up to maintain the relationship. In the next post we will share more details on the actions that have helped us maintain the connections we have made at networking events. We will also share insights on how to prepare for a networking event.