Q. Dear Zenagos,
I know I’m supposed to be networking, but I’m totally awkward at events. What am I supposed to be saying?
If you just show up at a networking event without a plan, you will waste your precious time. As Benjamin Franklin reputedly said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” You need to prepare your talking points before you leave for the event.
Prepare to Introduce Yourself
Networking gurus will tell you to be ready for the question, “What do you do?” At a US networking event, you can be certain that this question will arise. If you do not prepare an answer, this is an opportunity for you to bore everyone else and get them thinking about how soon they can leave the event. Think about what you do. What is special about it? What is unusual about it? Come up with a way of describing your job that is memorable. Try your idea out on the people around you – friends, family, neighbors. You’ll know you’ve got it right when the other person suddenly looks more interested and asks you a question.
Bring a List of Questions
As Dale Carnegie explains in How to Win Friends and Influence People, everyone’s favorite topic is themselves. If you can’t think quickly on your feet and freeze in social situations, prepare by creating a list of questions that curious people ask other people, and practice using them everywhere you can. Practice being inquisitive. Whether you are talking with your partner, friend, or neighbor, try to get the other person to say one more thing. If you can get other people talking, they will think you are a fabulous conversationalist.
Have a Few Topics Ready
If you end up standing next to another shy person at a networking event, you might need to do more of the work. Prepare a few topics. Before you go to the event, scan some news sites for current events. Politics can be a hazardous topic, so avoid that. Instead, look for unusual items, or search for “weird news.” Think of a few points that you could make about each topic. If there is a speaker at the event, look that person up, and try to find a few interesting facts that you can use to salt the conversation.
Be Ready with Your “Ask”
Before you leave for the event, think about what would most help your business right now. After you have gotten the other person talking, bring up your “ask” – that one thing that would be most helpful for you right now. For example, every business needs customers, but think upstream a bit – what are the common sources of customers? For example, if you think that a partnership with a particular type of firm could lead to relationships that could lead to customers, “ask” for connections to people at that type of firm. Just ask each person for one thing. People generally want to be helpful, so if they have that one idea in mind, they may think of you when that opportunity comes along.
Try to Reciprocate
The magic of networking is reciprocity. So, be sure to ask what it is that would most help your networking partner right now. People are often surprised by this question and need to think about it. It may be a good way to get them talking, so you can learn more about their business and the potential connections that could benefit you both.
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Carnegie D. D. & Thomas L. (2022). How to win friends and influence people: updated for the next generation of leaders [Revised edition]. Simon & Schuster.