"I love networking!" said no one ever. Meeting people for the first time and having a conversation can be really really painful, especially if you're the more introverted type like me. What are you supposed to talk about?? Well, I'm here to tell you that even someone who cringes at the thought of talking to strangers can get through.
First, it's important to spend some time thinking about why networking feels so uncomfortable. Are you afraid of being judged? Worried that you'll run out of things to talk about? Get really nervous when speaking in general? Ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen? If you suffer from social anxiety, being upfront can go a long way. Letting the person you're talking to know that you're a bit nervous is a great opener to the conversation and chances are, your vulnerability will help put them at ease and give you something to talk about as well. Bonus!
Before we get into conversation topics, one of the things you really want to avoid and be mindful of when having a networking conversation is being really purposeful with the other person's time. Everyone is really busy. After all, it's not as if we all have time regularly allocated in our calendars for networking. In order to make your conversation useful and relevant to the both of you, you'll want to do some research ahead of time to find out their interests, work history, what they're working on now. Think about what could be in it for them to have the chat.
Now, what to talk about. Well, what is your purpose for networking? What do YOU want to get out of the conversation? Go from there to decide what subjects you will introduce. Here are some examples:
Do some research to find out why they might want to hire you or refer you to someone who is hiring. What are their pain points? How can you help? What industries do they have experience with? LinkedIn is your go-to source for this information.
What are some of the things you're passionate about/good at? Give some examples. It can be difficult to talk about yourself, so reframe it to talk about the scenario instead.
Tell a brief story about how you got to where you are in your career; ask them to share theirs.
Consider asking the person for an introduction to someone else from their network for further conversations.
If you work on the same projects or are interested in doing so, ask the person specific things about their work:
What do they like about it?
What kind of challenges do they face?
What keeps them up at night?
A time they failed and what the outcome was.
What they're most proud of
Keep in mind that they might not be comfortable disclosing some of this information at the beginning because they don't know you, so be mindful of their comfort level and avoid probing if they seem hesitant. And, of course, be prepared to share your side too.
Making new friends can be especially difficult as an adult. The key is finding things you have in common. Here are some conversation starters that might reveal your commonalities with someone:
What they did on the weekend or plan to do next weekend
Kids (if any); pets (if any), any travel/summer plans, shows/movies they enjoy, they last great meal consumed, hobbies, sports, current events (although avoid political conversations), people you may know in common
Try to make the conversation give and take vs. one-sided
With all these conversation topics, practising active listening is of utmost importance. Not only will the person with whom you're networking feel like you are being mindful of their time, but they will realize the impact of the conversation and enjoy knowing that they have helped. And you too will get more out of the conversation if you listen carefully instead of simply check off boxes.
The main goals in your networking conversations should be making a connection, leaving an impression, and adding value to the person you’ve connected with. You want them to think of you when opportunities arise or if there is something they think would be of interest to you. Do follow up your chat with a note briefly summarizing what you talked about and how you'd like to continue getting to know one another (if you do). If you felt the time was spent valuably and you felt they thought so too, perhaps following up sometime in the future would be good.
Many years ago, I was looking for my next career opportunity but I was also at a crossroads in my career, not quite sure what I wanted to do next. I decided to speak to many people and ask them what they liked about their job. It was uncomfortable at first, but when I finally landed in my new gig and looked back at all the people I'd met, I was pretty impressed with the list. Eventually, over time, I got quite proficient with my meetings and made several connections that I still have today. Practice makes perfect, as they say, and even though there may not be a perfect when it comes to networking, there's certainly a way to make things less awkward.