This article is about how to make meeting people easier and, surprisingly, the answer has nothing to do with whether you are introverted or gregarious, outgoing or shy. This article is about three differences that I have found between the people that find it easy to meet new people at networking events and the people that find it difficult.
To support this article, I asked hundreds of people at an international conference in Washington DC about their networking experiences and I have drawn the following conclusions:
- Most people have had very good experiences from networking and can see the value in attending networking functions. For example, many people met their employers through new contacts, some found their “big deal” via personal introductions, and most found business friends through networking functions.
- The networking benefits were roughly the same for both the introverts and extroverts.
- People relied on person-to-person events to meet new people and social networking tools were used primarily for private contacts.
- The major area of difference was in the ease of meeting people, and here the division was not divided by introverts and extroverts, but by the tactics, or lack of tactics, used in meeting people.
But almost everyone found meeting people challenging at one time or another.
In fact, so many people asked for help and tips on meeting people that it confirms that Meeting People is the right topic for the first The Networking Workshop ebook. And surprisingly, while describing how difficult it is, a large number of people wanted a revival of face-to-face networking!
The group that found meeting people most difficult
The problems with meeting people boiled down to three core issues that made people either want avoid the party altogether or plan their exit on the way in:
1. It is difficult to start a conversation.
2. It is difficult to make small talk and continue conversations.
3. It is difficult to end conversations.
The group that found meeting people easiest
The group that found meeting people easiest used active strategies to make conversations easier and had advice for each of the three problems.
1. Have a strategy to find people that are easy to meet and talk to.
2. Prepare a lot of what you are going to say before the party and arm yourself with items for conversation.
3. End conversations before they run out of steam.
That is easy for them to say! But what exactly do they mean?
1. Having a strategy to find people that can introduce you will make starting conversations easier and get to know a Connector.
If you are not confident at initiating conversations, there are several avenues open to you and these are the most popular strategies I found at the conference. The first advice is to join someone you already know. This is one of the most simple and popular strategies and you see this tactic used by the best networkers. The advantages are that your friend/acquaintance will introduce you to other people and, because the group is already talking, you are joining a conversation-in-progress. It gives you a bit of time to relax and meet your friend’s friends or just listen for a while. If they don’t introduce you automatically, ask your contact to introduce you, or introduce yourself. It also gives you an opener. You can ask how the others know your friend. This eases the pressure on you because the whole conversation will not rest on your shoulders. If you don’t know anyone, try to find the organizer or host and ask if they can introduce you to someone. This will have the same effect.
The second advice to opening conversations is to take some control over who you talk to because some people are more open to conversation than others. With this method, you will have to be observant and pick who you approach with consideration. Many recommend approaching a group of three people because it is likely that one of them will not be actively involved in their conversation and will be open to talking to you. Avoid trying to join groups of two people because it is quite likely that you are interrupting a conversation and will not be given a good reception. Some people suggest talking to a person who is standing alone. This can work if you have prepared well for tip two (managing conversations), but if you find conversations difficult, a one-on-one cold conversation can be hard. I always try to approach groups of three or four people who are laughing or look like they are relaxed. I come up with a smile on my face and join their group and ask if I am interrupting or say “can I join your group? You look like you are having more fun than everyone else”. I think that they will be easier to talk to if they are enjoying themselves.
Lastly, you can “bring-a-friend” as a companion and you can give each other courage when joining groups and starting conversations.
The third advice on starting conversations is to hang around a networker known as a “connector”, or matchmaker. They will get you going and likely introduce you to people that will be interesting for you. These people are usually known by everyone and are able to match people by interest, skill, or even personality. You can recognize them because they move around a lot and use language like “I know who you should meet” or “you would get along well with Fred” or “is there anyone you are looking for?”. When they meet people, they automatically look for a fit. Word-of-warning to the introverted! Connectors are often given bad-press in the Introvert-blogs and are dismissed as overactive sales people. Connectors are usually open with introductions and actively work the room, not staying long in any one place. Do not expect them to engage in a deep conversation, they are usually looking for surface information. But they are working very hard at the networking function.
2. Prepare a lot of what you are going to say before the party and arm yourself with items for conversation.
Most of the people that feel they are not good at meeting people say they “find small talk excruciating” and they are “not good at putting themselves out there”. You may find it counterintuitive, but the best networkers do not engage in much small talk, but they are interested in knowing who you are and what you do.
For those that feel uncomfortable promoting themselves, the best advice is to prepare a short summary: who you are, where you are from, what you do, why you are at the networking function. Short and sharp. It allows you to get to the point and spend less time talking about yourself. You should able to introduce yourself in one or two sentences so the person you meet knows your name, company, what you do and your key message. End your story with a question that cannot be answered with a yes/no, like “tell me about yourself”. Your introduction will give the other person enough information to ask you questions about you or your product and it gives them a structure to give you the same information in return. You will sound prepared and you will have contributed to the conversation. Please don’t be intimidated when you meet someone who introduces themselves well, they have probably given their introduction a lot of thought and you can benefit from their efforts.
The primary advice for people who find it challenging to keep the conversation going is: prepare your side of the conversation in advance. You will sound confident and will be able to spend your time learning about others, not wondering what you should say next. This takes pressure off you. You don’t need to prepare everything, of course, just some key things. If the conversation lags and you want to continue it a bit longer, introduce one of your prepared subjects.
Good conversationalists have a set of standard answers to common questions so that they can give interesting, concise answers and turn the conversation back to the other person. Think about questions you are often asked and prepare what you will say when you are asked the question in return:
- What do you do exactly? / This is what I do exactly
- Why did you start your business or how long have you worked at your company? / This is why I started my business
- Is there a story behind your company name? / This is the story behind my company name
- How could you help my business? / This is how I can help your business
- Where are you from? / This is how I ended up living in the Netherlands (because I am not Dutch).
Good conversationalists arm themselves with current information on the market/industry/main companies in the industry so that they could ask questions like “did you see/hear about __________. I found it interesting because ___________. What do you think?”. Most checked one or two email newsletters and a news service before the party to have some "back-pocket" conversation topics and so that they would sound informed when asked about current events.
And a couple of don’ts:
- Don’t end with “have you heard of us?” because if the other person has to answer no, it could kill the conversation and embarrass everyone, especially if you say “Really? We are very well known”.
- Don’t make the other person struggle for your answers. It is almost impossible to keep a conversation going when it is all one-sided, so preparation gives you better answers with which to keep up your side.
- Try not to answer questions with yes or no, especially several questions in a row. It is a conversation killer.
3. Learn how to end conversations effectively and gracefully.
When the conversation flags or enters into small talk, the best networkers use that as a signal to end the conversation and move on to another person or group. This may seem cold or uncaring to those of you that think that networking is all about small talk and getting to know each other, but for the best networkers, small talk is as dreary as it is for everyone else. It is just that they have the courage and experience to excuse themselves to go and meet someone else. By-all-means talk as long as you like, but if you are beginning to struggle, it is a clue to stop.
I usually break the conversation when it has reached a peak because I want people to remember me when we were having the most fun or when one of us said something particularly brilliant or witty. Why not stick around for longer? This tactic increases my chances of leaving them with a positive feeling and allows them to introduce me to other people with confidence. But the underlying reason is that I can talk forever about everything and nothing – there is a real danger that I become the gregarious bore that catches you in a corner, so I make an effort to leave fairly early in the conversation. If we are having an interesting business conversation that needs to be continued, I will get permission from the other person to call them to continue the discussion or I book a follow up meeting on the spot. To break the conversation, I say “I don’t want to monopolise your time and I should go and meet more people. I will see you tomorrow at our meeting/send you an email to book a call/ will see you on my next tour around the room...”. It is more honest than saying that you need to go to the washroom or get a fresh drink. It being a networking function, and that it lasts for a fixed amount of time, gives you the excuse you need to move on. Don’t be afraid to end conversations because if you are finding it difficult to continue, it is likely that the other person is as well.
What next? Repeat the process from step one and do not head for the door! Find another group that you know and start again. It should be easier on the next round of the room because you have already met some new people.
It gets easier with practice!
Although most of the people I interviewed find it challenging to meet people, the ones that found it easiest were definitely doing things differently.
Thanks for reading,