How to Sharpen Your Networking Skills
Last week I was on a 4 day training course in Downtown Vancouver, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to sharpen my networking skills. I am normally fairly quiet and introverted, so I often need to make an effort when it comes to networking and the like. That said, I have come a long way since my days of being painfully shy.
The following are some of the most important networking lessons I have picked up in recent years, plus a description of how I applied them last week. If networking is one of your weaknesses, I strongly recommend you try some of these suggestions.
Networking Skill #1: Craft Your Story
On the first day I walk into the training classroom and say “hello” to the half dozen people who have arrived before me. My Australian accent makes it immediately obvious to others that I am not from around here. I am lucky, in a sense, because this usually sparks peoples’ curiosity and means we immediately have something to talk about. Despite this, I have still taken the time to think about and develop my story – that is, a short summary (say 30 to 60 seconds) of who I am that captures peoples’ interest and makes me memorable.
When it comes to you crafting your story, you may not have a topic of conversation as obvious as being from a foreign country. You should still, however, be able to craft a story emphasizes why you are worth getting to know. If your selling points don’t immediately come to mind, keep thinking. We are all unique in our own special ways, and if you are prepared to take the time to think about your qualities you will come up with something.
As a starting point, you may like to consider the following questions:
- What is something I do that very few other people do?
- What is something about me that people usually find interesting and ask further questions about?
- What is something that is likely to make me memorable?
I should also point out that my story is flexible depending on who I am talking to. If I am speaking to someone who has a family, I will emphasize that I am here because of my wife and 1 year old boy. If I am talking to someone my own age (I don’t meet too many 25 year olds who are parents), I will probably talk more about my love for the outdoors and the mountain lifestyle.
Networking Skill #2: Find Common Points of Interest to Talk About
It is day 2 and I wander outside during a 15 minute mid-morning break. One of the guys, who I haven’t really spoken to yet, is smoking a cigarette. Our eyes meet, and I walk over for a chat despite the fact I abhor smoking. He mentions the rain, and it is immediately obvious he, like me, was neither born or raised in Vancouver. People from Vancouver just accept the rain. Those who weren’t born or raised here typically says things like “I love it here….. except for the rain”. So we talk about our travels and our thoughts of Vancouver, and in this way we make a connection.
It’s very important when we talk to other people to identify topics of common interest. If you talk about a topic only you are interested in, you risk being as forgettable as a Jessica Simpson song. The key, in my opinion, is to ask open questions and then listen carefully for clues as to what topics may be of interest to you both. Sometimes this is easy, but other times it requires a bit more skill.
Networking Skill #3: Never Eat Alone
On the first day we were provided with lunch, but on the second day we are left to our own devices. I make a point to join a small group of people from our class who are headed to a nearby cafe. Once again, it is only really when I get to speak to these people out of the classroom that we can connect in any meaningful way.
The phrase “never eat alone” is perhaps too excessive (personally I often enjoy eating my lunch alone in the park either reading, writing or just watching the world go by), but it does capture the power of networking with people over a meal. Don’t be afraid to ask your co-workers or clients if they would like to go out for lunch or dinner sometime.
Networking Skill #4: Take the Initiative
It is day 3 of the course, and I recall my work colleague saying, “the training facilitator is a very good person to get to know.” I also realize that she may be able to help find me a place in the next training course in April, which I narrowly missed out on getting a spot in (meaning at this stage I have to wait till June to do the course). So during the lunch hour I make a point to go up to her and chat. I bring up the training course in April, but it seems there are no spots at this stage. In any case, she is now has me in mind if any spots do become available.
I use this example to illustrate two things: 1) often we need to take the initiative to get to know people; and 2) some people are worth making an extra effort to get to know. In fact, it is normally the case that the more a person is worth establishing contact with the more initiative you have to take. If you are scared of rejection, I highly recommend this article from PickTheBrain last week: The Shy Person’s Guide to Talking to Strangers.
Networking Skill #5: Make an Effort to Keep in Contact
It is the afternoon on day 4. I realize that I won’t be seeing these people again tomorrow (or anytime soon for that matter), so I make a point to get their email addresses. The following day, Friday, I send out a few quick emails to the people I have met during the week.
Making an effort to keep in touch with people really is worth it. In the past, some people I have met in similar situations have become good friends. Or, I have met useful contacts who have helped open the door to opportunities I would otherwise not have had.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a person’s business card, phone number or email address. There is much talk these days about the bad aspects of email – potential addiction, negative productivity, etc – but there is also much to celebrate about it. In particular, email is a very easy way to maintain contact with the various people you meet. Who knows what part these people could eventually play in your life?