Networking: Expert Tips

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

It only takes one loop around the dining hall at a trade fair or business conference, meal tray in hand, for many of us to feel like we’re the new student on the first day of school. You scan the tables, noting the ones with lively conversations where everyone seems to know each other, and wonder if you dare to join. You think it would probably be easier to sit down at that nearly empty table by the door and bury your nose in your smartphone. Anything to look busy!

In fact, networking within your company, at industry events, and even at parties pays off: 70% of all jobs are found through networking, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s a smart way to learn about new fields and business opportunities you wouldn’t have known about otherwise. More than that, meeting new people can turn a seemingly boring conference into a fun event. Why, then, is networking so hard? Some people are simply shy and don’t feel comfortable chatting up a stranger. Others enjoy mingling in a new crowd, but never seem to meet the “right” people.

We asked four experts for their tips on networking. With decades of experience attending conferences, and now giving them, these pros talk about everything from the neuroscience behind networking to how to make a good impression.

Top tips:

  1. What’s in a word: Redefine the word “networking”
  2. Dos and don’ts: Improve the way you network
  3. It’s all in your head: Understand the neuroscience behind networking
  4. Take it online: Use social media before, during, and after events

Next page: Redefine the word “networking”

1. What’s in a word: Redefine the word “networking”

Part of the problem people have with networking may be the word itself. It feels forced, formal, and makes the simple act of getting to know someone seem like a ruse to serve your own ambitions. But just because the word “networking” has a bad reputation doesn’t mean you should throw out your Rolodex. It’s all about changing your mindset.

“When you talk about setting up a business network, you automatically create a formality to what you’re doing. That makes it hard to enjoy, especially if you’re a shy person. Instead of networking, simply think of it as seeking out really interesting conversations with people.” – Rachel Happe

“I don’t care for the word networking and I never use it. Instead, I look for ‘mutuality’ with other people that will lead to a satisfying connection and a shared benefit. That may prove to be an exchange of ideas, mutual mentoring, or simply support.” – Kare Anderson

“If you approach networking with the specific aim of developing your business, people will wonder what you’re trying to sell them. It’s more about finding shared interests and seeing how those shared interests might come together in fruitful ways.” – Allen Bonde

“I think of networking as connecting profoundly with a person and figuring out how I can help them. Worst case scenario, it will go no further than a great conversation. In the best cases, you’ll find out you have something in common and can be of service to each other.” – Christine Comaford

Networking shouldn’t be self-serving. In fact, it’s all about collaboration, creating something greater with other people than what you could accomplish on your own.

Next page: Dos and don’ts: Improve the way you network

2. Dos and don’ts: Improve the way you network

Networking done right is fairly simple: Ask questions, listen closely to the answers, and offer help where you can. Our four experts describe how to do this in more detail below:

  • “Practice networking every day. Talk to people in line at the coffee shop, at the store, on the plane. Once you start connecting more with people in your day-to-day life, it will become second nature at work.” – Christine Comaford
  • “Try starting a conversation with other attendees before the event starts, either on the event’s Twitter stream or in its LinkedIn group. When you see them at the event, it will be more of a reunion than a first-time meeting.” – Allen Bonde
  • “Dedicate more of your schedule to breakfast, lunch, and dinner; social gatherings; meeting people; and walking the floor at events. When I first started going to conferences, I used to spend all my time at the sessions. Now, you can watch most sessions online; it’s the in-person relationship building that you can’t get anywhere else.” – Rachel Happe
  • “Sidle up to people. It’s been shown that you’re less likely to get along with someone that you’re facing directly. Try speaking more slowly and in a lower register. Use fewer gestures. This makes it easier for people to concentrate on what you’re saying.” – Kare Anderson
  • “Some great questions to initiate a conversation with a person you don’t know are, how did you get into your business, who is your ideal customer, what are your goals, and what do you do for fun?” – Christine Comaford
  • “Start the conversation with a meaningful question and always ask a relevant follow-up question to prove you’ve been listening. Try to identify a mutual interest and, if you can, make a specific offer to follow-up, either by sending relevant information on the topic or making an introduction.” – Kare Anderson
  • “Do ‘palm-up’ networking. That means giving first – sharing what you can of your time and expertise – and getting later. This sets up the kind of relationship where you can create something together.” – Christine Comaford

Next page: It’s all in your head: Understand the neuroscience behind networking

3. It’s all in your head: Understand the neuroscience behind networking

There’s a lot going on in your brain when you meet a new person: you’re learning their name, coming up with meaningful answers to their questions, and maybe trying to recall an article that has to do with their line of work. At the same time, another part of your brain has already determined whether the person is a “friend” or “foe.” This process happens automatically with everyone you meet, and it plays a crucial role in determining whether you connect with someone or not.

Christine Comaford, known for blending neuroscience techniques and business strategy, explains what is going on in the brain during a social interaction:

  • Avoid social pain and trigger social pleasure:

Two brain “networks” are involved when you meet a new person: social pain and social pleasure. The social pain network is triggered by social rejection, like when you feel excluded from a conversation or group. Brain scans show that pain from social rejection can register at the same level as physical pain – and lasts longer. The social pleasure network is activated when you feel support from those around you, and it increases the likelihood of making strong connections.

  •  Understand safety, belonging, and mattering:

One way to show your support for people is to make them feel safe, that they belong, and that they matter. These are three deep-seated needs that we all have. The brain is constantly looking for safety – determining whether people are “friends” or “foes” – and searching for a tribe or group of people to belong to. These are ingrained survival instincts. We also want to feel that we matter, that we’re not just another cog in the wheel.

  •  Give people what they need:

Successful networkers understand these human needs and do their best to affirm them when meeting new people. When you’re talking with people at an event, try to understand their needs. If they say they don’t know anyone, they might be looking for a sense of belonging. If they talk to you about their accomplishments, they probably just want to feel that they matter. Respond accordingly, either by introducing them to other people, or asking more about their work. If you can give people what they most deeply need, you’ll be able to create a much stronger connection with them.

Next page: Take it online: Use social media before, during, and after events

4. Take it online: Use social media before, during, and after events

Being active on social networks, it turns out, triggers that social pleasure part of the brain. While that may explain why millions of people are on Facebook and Twitter, it’s not the only reason you should tune in to your Twitter feed every now and again:

  • “Social media helps you connect with relevant people much more quickly. When you approach a random person at a conference, there’s no way of knowing if you have anything in common with them. You’re not making the most efficient use of your time.” – Rachel Happe
  • “One of the most useful thing about social networks is having access to people it would be hard to connect with otherwise, like C-level executives. That doesn’t mean you should cold call them. But if you’ve read their blogs and have something interesting to add, social media makes it very easy to get in touch with them.” – Allen Bonde
  • “If you know in advance who will be attending a conference you’re going to, you can use social media to identify the people you’d like to get to know better. Start a conversation with them on Twitter and plan to meet up with them at the event. On-site, make yourself more visible by ‘live tweeting’ from sessions and using the hash tags. Afterwards, stay connected and keep the conversation going online.” – Rachel Happe
  • “Don’t make the conversation all about you. The really well-connected people are those who retweet what others say and add their own insights. It’s like listening and responding, rather than dominating the conversation.” – Kare Anderson

Next page: About the contributors

About the contributors:

Kare Anderson is a speaker, consultant, and the author of several books and blogs, including “Say It Better” and “Moving from Me to We.”

Allen Bonde is chief strategist at The Pulse Network and partner and principal analyst at Digital Clarity Group.

Christine Comaford is an expert in applied neuroscience, leadership and culture coach, author of the upcoming “SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together” (Penguin, May 2013) and “Rules for Renegades” (McGraw-Hill).

Rachel Happe is co-founder of The Community Roundtable, a company that offers training, research and advisory services to organizations pursuing community and social business approaches.