Networking. At its worst, it’s an exchange of banal small talk and glad-handing that you’ve been forced into by someone who’s read a blog post about the importance of networking. At its best, though, networking can be a great opportunity to make connections that can help you—or allow you to help others.
Ultimately, networking events are what you make them. If you think they’re going to be useless ordeals, that’s what they’ll be. On the other hand, if you go into a networking event armed with good conversation skills and a positive attitude, you may find that you get more out of it than you might have thought even in your most optimistic moments.
While we can’t help you with your attitude—that’s one’s up to you—we do have some tips for improving your conversation skills and making your networking better and more successful as a result.
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Make it about them
You’ve probably been held captive by someone who talks endlessly about something you don’t care about. Don’t be the person who does that. Instead, show interest in your conversation partner’s world. Start your conversations by asking an open-ended question about the work they do or their interests. Try starting with business-oriented questions like “How did you get started in this industry?” or “What’s your favorite type of client to work with?” If the conversation goes a little farther, consider asking questions along the lines of “What’s your favorite way to celebrate success?”
Don’t be a panhandler
No, we’re not talking about the person asking for spare change on the street, but we are talking about a similar attitude. Don’t approach people with the intention of getting something out of them, but rather with sincere interest and an attitude of “what can I do to help you?” By taking a constructive stance and wanting to be of service, you actually increase the odds that something good is going to come out of your networking activities.
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Listen. Really listen.
Most people don’t listen well. They’ll hear half of what the other person is saying and immediately start forming counter-arguments or thinking of things to say in response. But people respond best when they feel heard. Pay attention when the other person is talking—make eye contact, nod, or make affirmative noises—and use “active listening” techniques like paraphrasing the other person’s view and asking for clarification if needed.
Avoid taboo topics
We all know politics and religion are topics that should not be on the table at a networking event. But did you know that there are some other, less obvious things you should avoid talking about? Don’t discuss relationship status, for example, and do avoid comments on a person’s physical appearance. You might also want to avoid discussing major purchases or other things that could signal that you are of a higher (or lower) socioeconomic status than your peers.
Use positive language
Networking events are not the time to complain about your job, your commute, or your personal life. Instead, make sure your language is inviting and not overly blunt. There’s really no down side to using positive language (just try not to be too constantly chipper because that can come off as being insincere), and it’s a great way to avoid communication problems that arise from misinterpretation of blunter language.
What tips do you have for improving your conversation skills? Please tell us in the comments.