“Networking events always feel so forced and awkward. Do you have any tips on helping the conversation flow?”— Submitted by Calvin N., recent grad in Connecticut
Networking events are the leafy greens of social outings: You know they’re good for you, but most of the time you’d rather just be home eating a cupcake with cream cheese frosting and rainbow sprinkles. It’s never easy to walk into a room full of strangers and strike up a conversation—even harder when you might be speaking with someone who, if things go well, could help you with a future career or educational opportunity. So, how to make an admittedly awkward situation more palatable … maybe even enjoyable? We spoke with communication expert Debra Fine, founder of a Denver-based company called The Fine Art of Small Talk and author of a book by the same name. This formerly “shy, tongue-tied engineer”—who is now an internationally recognized keynote speaker, trainer, communication expert, and best-selling author—shared a few tips for helping the conversation flow.
Set a specific goal
“My best tip for letting go of the awkwardness, or finding a way to overcome it, is to view networking events as a task, similar to a project or a paper,” says Fine. Instead of allowing yourself to be overwhelmed (due to feeling like you have to speak with everyone, which leads to hurried, forced interactions), she suggests you narrow your focus and set a reachable goal. “Here’s the task,” she says. “You approach a networking event with this in mind: How many new people am I going to meet? You get to set that number, and once you’ve reached it, you’re off the hook for the evening.”
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Do your research first
“Walk in prepared with things to talk about,” says Fine, “because the worst time to think of something to talk about is when there’s nothing to talk about.” She suggests you be ready with a few “free information questions.”
“Free information” is what you know about the location or event itself—the venue, the speaker, the topic. Some examples:
“How are you connected to the event?”
“What do you know about this city?”
“What have you heard about the speaker?”
And tried and true, especially at an alumni event on campus: “Tell me about your college experience.”
Listen as much as you speak
Because it’s a networking event, you may feel that it’s important to talk about yourself, but often the best way to generate interest in you is to show interest in others. Ask about their experiences and their background. The bonus: Some of the burden of keeping the conversation flowing will be off your shoulders while you’re the listener.
What about when the spotlight turns on you? Fine has this rule of thumb: “You’ve got four minutes—five max—to allow [the other person] to show an interest in you, and then you have to throw the conversation ball back.” Talk longer than that, and you risk monopolizing the conversation or losing their interest.
Show an honest interest in others
Rather than viewing the event as a means to an end, focus on learning about and creating connections with the people you meet. You don’t want to engage in conversation only with those who you think can “do” something for you, nor should you spend all of your time talking up your resume. This can make you come off as someone who’s just working the room. Not only does that leave a bad impression but it can also be pretty boring. Says Fine, “If you approach a networking event as a transactional opportunity, I think you really drop the ball. You have to approach these events as if you want to learn as much as you possibly can.”
Meet the expert
Debra Fine is a communication expert and the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. She speaks frequently on college campuses to help students learn conversational and networking skills.
Make the first conversational move
You might be tempted to wait until someone comes up to you to start talking, especially if you’re shy or an introvert. But chances are others at the event are feeling just as uncomfortable as you are. Don’t rely on them to help you overcome your discomfort. Instead, Fine recommends this:
“You’ve got to be willing to take the risk to walk up to new people. Assume the burden of making the other person feel comfortable during the conversation.” By initiating contact and setting someone else at ease, you will feel more confident and at ease yourself.
Issue the invitation
You’ve had a great conversation, but now it’s time to move on gracefully. Do it with an invitation to continue the connection.
“The real key to networking is to issue the invitation—I’d like to stay in touch with you, or I’d like to be able to call on you with questions; would that be OK? or I’d like to learn more from you. Would it be OK if I called next week and set up a time to meet?” explains Fine. “You need to ask permission when you’re face-to-face.” Not only does this create a smooth transition but it also gives you a concrete “next task”—a next step in building your network.