Friday, October 20, 2017

Can't Stand Networking Events? Pretend to Be Somebody Else

Networking events have a decidedly mixed reputation in business. Lots of people can't bear them for all kinds of reasons: Introverts worry about clamming up, extroverts about being bored, and hard-driving types about it being a waste of time. You might have your own reasons to finding any possible excuse for avoiding them.

But in-person networking is not going away anytime soon. Sure, social media networks are terrific because they allow you to connect with new clients, share interesting articles, and you never have to leave your desk.

But let's be real -- as you're scarfing your lunch and reading your former CEO's latest think piece on office culture, you still know deep down that the face-to-face experience of business socializing can make an important difference for sales, industry connections, new knowledge, and who knows what else.

One of the ways I've grown my business from a stack of file folders (remember those?) to a multi-million dollar consulting firm is by using the skills I've learned as an actor and improviser to make these events more productive -- and, dare I say, often quite fun. And the good news is that you can, too.

The first thing to do is to approach the event as a play or a film. It might feel strange to think about it in that way, but the metaphor holds up.

You'll be making an entrance into an unfamiliar space. You'll hear -- and soon be adding to -- a cacophony of dialogue over the course of the evening. The people will be arranged in pairs or small groups which will change and rearrange in an intricate and fluid choreography.

Seeing the event as a play or film means that your conversations will be a series of scenes, and that allows you to perform as a new character. Yes, I mean perform -- literally.

You can then make "performance choices" and try things you wouldn't normally do, which increase the effectiveness of your presence and experience. You might not be rapping about the Constitution in front of thousands of screaming Hamil-fans, but the choices you make in these scenes matter.

So congratulations! As a new cast member of "Networking: The Musical!" you suddenly have a Playbill full of possibilities for how to perform at your next event.

Here are a couple of my favorites:


1. The Gracious Host

You're not actually the host, but you're doing what a generous host would do.

You go out of your way to greet people. You engage them in conversation, not because you're looking to get something from them, but because as the host, you know that will make them more comfortable (remember, it's not just you who finds these events awkward).

You ask them questions about why and how they came, and what they're finding useful about being there. You know that people are here to meet each other, so you're keeping an ear out for people who might connect well.

Did that guy say he's in social media marketing? He might want to talk with the woman with the hot new app. Is this couple going hiking next weekend? Maybe they want to meet the folks who rent out a mountainside full of glamping cabins.

The best thing about playing The Gracious Host is that your motivation to chat with people is totally altruistic; you get all the benefits of being there, while banking good networking karma for the future.


 2. The Curious Journalist

Perform as someone who is fiercely and genuinely interested in who people are and what they do. You are curious. You are generous. You are brave.

You aren't afraid to ask questions that are a bit provocative. "Do you have any tips for people who are bad at networking?" "What did you think you'd be when you grew up?" "What was the best career advice you ever got?"

And as someone who's extremely curious, you ask follow-up questions as well, making sure they're closely connected to what the person just said and not answerable with a simple "yes" or "no."

Both the "Gracious Host" and the "Curious Journalist" have one important trait in common: They listen. When you play one of these characters, you're paying much more attention to the other person in the conversation than to yourself.

Because you have more important things to do with your attention -- like asking questions, or making connections, or helping everyone else feel comfortable -- your awkwardness, or boredom, or self-consciousness just fade away. And you're free to reap the rewards of a successful networking event.

As they say in another (extremely profitable) show: You're not throwing away your shot.

Image Source: Getty Images

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