Most communication is spontaneous. Think about it — how often do you get to pull out that canned speech you memorized to explain who you are to a complete stranger? It’s important to be flexible and improvise when you are meeting new people in a professional context. That said, there are predictable circumstances in which you will have the chance to tell people who you are, so strategizing in advance about how you might handle those is a great idea.
One such key opportunity is at networking events. You know those evenings when you are milling around in a huge group, appetizers in hand, trying to find the important people, trying to connect, and trying to make a good impression on the people who can help your career while many other people are trying to do the same. It’s easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed at such events.
Some concerns you might have:
- How do I edge my way into a discussion in a group that is already conversing?
- How do I get the attention of important people without seeming like I am stealing the spotlight?
- How do I make a memorable impression when there are so many other people talking?
- How do I turn an interesting conversation into a meaningful professional connection?
Good questions. If you want to learn the answers and gain some valuable tools for making spontaneous connections while networking, please come to my networking workshop at this year’s Forté MBA Women’s Leadership Conference.
But one thing you will want to be sure to think through before a networking event is your Networking Opener. It’s not the elevator pitch you’ve heard so much about. That’s meant for tight quarters, one on one communication with an important person who is only going to give you the time of an elevator ride. That is a tactical strike with the objective of getting out ASAP with a business card and invitation to follow up.
But networking events are different. They are a dialogue, an ongoing conversation among a group of people who are all getting to know each other. A networking conversation could last two minutes or two hours. Your objective is not to get in and out as fast as possible, it is to bring yourself fully into a dynamic conversation with others. So when someone turns to you and asks “So, what do you do?” you need to have a plan for an answer.
I say “plan,” because if you do this right, you will never introduce yourself exactly the same way twice. The specific words you choose will arise spontaneously in the moment depending on who you are talking to. Planning the highlights of what you want to say will help you engage confidently in these interactions.
The three key components to an effective Networking Opener.
An opening statement that characterizes your salient passion.
Person A: “In the last three years of my career I have been most focused on helping people communicate more effectively in a professional context.”
Person B: “During my career in investment banking, the most important lesson I have learned is that data can be used to make really meaningful predictions, and I have really loved strengthening my analytical skills while at MCG Bank.”
Person C: “During my consulting years, I realized that the experiences I most valued were those that allowed me to help build something new. So I joined STARTCO where I helped launch new products for a year before starting business school.”
If you are a fan of Simon Sinek, this is your “Why.” Notice that the bolded terms give the listener a window into your passions and what matters to you and allows the connection to start on the basis of your enthusiasm and values.
One or two concrete and vivid examples of this passion in your recent accomplishments.
Some very brief examples:
Person A: “For example, I lead workshops for women in business school and teach them how to tell their personal stories in a way that inspires them and employers. I use the ideas of Hollywood movies to help people uncover their natural storytelling abilities.”
Person B: “In fact on my last project, I did some extra due diligence on a client’s acquisition of a network of factories in rural China, and by quantifying local risk factors the client hadn’t considered in my model, I successfully helped them negotiate a better price with the seller.”
Person C: “The coolest product I helped launch is called a ‘widget.’ In a span of only six months, we got the thing designed, manufactured, and distributed to a small market in Southern California. It’s already profitable, so the company is planning to scale up production for a national launch in the next year.”
A closer that opens up the conversation to everyone else.
THIS is the part that is most situation-dependent and must be spontaneous. Questions can be very effective, but you can also just end with a statement and allow someone else to pick up the ball and run with it.
Person A: “I love my work because it’s fun and it really makes a difference for people. It also allows me a lot of flexibility to travel, which is something else that’s really important to me.”
Person B: “It’s been a long journey though, I was terrible at excel when I first started. What would you say is the most important skill you’ve developed from scratch since starting your career?”
Person C: “My goal after business school is to transition into a marketing role at a larger company. I have so much more to learn and I hope to get some good training and mentoring in the nuances of customer insight in my next job.”
You can see that any one of these statements is an invitation for someone else either to ask you a follow up question, chime in with their own perspective, or draw a connection between you and what they do. It is open and fluid so that others can enter and participate, and this is critically important for these group networking events!
Play with a few different ways to introduce yourself, have fun, and see if you can surprise yourself each time by saying something different that really excites and inspires you.
For more communication tips and tools to advance your career, please check out mbacareercoaches.com.