If you’ve ever been to an industry mixer event, you probably have a bad impression of networking. Either you believe networking is full of dead ends (and they are), or you struggle to really sell your personality and your work to prospects — connecting with the unfamiliar can be daunting and quite difficult. This is doubly true if you’re among the vast majority of tech workers who self-identify as “too shy” to build big networks.
But you don’t need to be a social butterfly to excel at networking. You don’t even need a lot of practice networking to be good at it. Building your network, paradoxically, comes from knowing yourself, your work, and how to make others care about it.
Strike a Flawless First Impression
“How to Win Friends and Influence People “ was a watershed book in the realm of social networking. In it, author Dale Carnegie codified the behaviors of people in initial social settings in a way that was both sincere and compelling in how it treats peers. While some see networking, especially for personal game, as a subtle game of manipulation or coercion — you’re actually going to be more successful connecting with people if you’re unfailingly honest and straightforward about yourself.
You only have about 30 seconds to turn a stranger into a friend. So here’s what you can do to make your first impressions flawless:
Give a genuine smile – A smile is the most disarming expression we have. It invites people to feel at ease, it gives them a reason to want to approach you, and it helps them feel comfortable around you. If you’re not smiling, you’re impressing on people that you will not be enjoyable company.
Remember names and use them – “The average person is more interested in their own name than all the other names in the world put together,” writes Carnegie. Using names, especially first names (when appropriate) shows that you’re interesting in speaking to the person before you.
Acting overly formal or stiff by using titles or honorifics can suggest that you’re more interested in what the person can do for you. And if someone is offended by casual name-dropping, it may be an indication the networking isn’t worth your time anyway.
Show sincere interest in people – Insincerity is the death of any social encounter. A PHP’s developer’s work stories may not be interesting (and trust us: they aren’t. Sorry PHP developers!), but you can help them make it interesting. Ask about a person’s work history, their side-projects, and their accomplishments. Not everyone can offer their best story right out of the gate, so don’t fake interest in boring anecdotes to help build a contact — help them catch your interest instead.
Mind your Body Language – Body language represents 70% of our offline communication, a fact many knowledge workers don’t always remember. A strong, confident posture and enthusiastic, open composure will draw people into your sphere rather than push them away. Avoid crossed-arms, lack of eye contact, or “closed” body posture.
Listen – Above all, listen to the other party. You should be listening far more than you’re speaking, unless invited to otherwise. People who talk excessively to you are interested in talking with you. Talking too much on your end, however, can convince people that you’re more interested in yourself.
Talk in a Way That Invites Storytelling
Humans, since the dawn of time, have always loved a good story. Stories are the primary means with which people identify with other people, situations, or experiences that aren’t their own. By turning your work, your skills, and your personality into a story, you’ll invite people to identify and engage with your point of view and your interests.
Talk about overcoming challenges – People too eager to pitch themselves to prospects often make the common mistake of “overselling” themselves by talking endlessly of their successes and accomplishments. The rest of the world sees right through this: there’s nothing interesting about someone who always succeeds — and it’s totally unrealistic to boot.
Real people struggle and suffer to accomplish things in their lives, and it’s those struggles that make people seem like real, 3-dimensions human beings. Sometimes it’s fun to laugh about one another’s mistakes, and people invariably bond over overcoming some difficulty in their work. Telling stories where you beat the odds shows people that you have a strength of character that they want to be around. Having no challenges means that you’re either a good liar or potentially an intimidating perfectionist.
Invite their stories – We’re going to let you on a little secret: the single greatest icebreaker in the history of social gatherings is:
Wait for it…
“What’s your story?”
In three little words, you’re giving another person the greatest gift of all: the opportunity to express themselves on their terms to you. If you ever want to learn more about someone you just met, asking them their “story” will get you two amazing results: someone thinking about how to enthrall you with a story, and a platform for the speaker to talk about themselves. And everyone, without exception, loves talking about themselves.
Make frequent use of humor – Humor is, by its nature, disarming and familiar. Everyone loves a good laugh, within reason, and making people laugh is the surest and fastest way to charm them. That being said, there’s probably forms of humor you should avoid: crude, juvenile, or insulting humor may get you laughs but it won’t make you friends. Situational irony, observations, and self-effacing (making fun of yourself) humor are good ways to show the listener that you’re fun to be around and are easy-going.
Always remember your happy endings – All the greatest stories have a happy ending, or “closure”. To tie it into the tip about challenges: if the challenge is the climax of your story – than your happy ending is your final scene. This is a great time to talk about what you’ve been able to do with your work, or help give them an idea of what you hope to do with your work.
Don’t use your happy ending as a way to show how competent you are, but rather to demonstrate how you saw a project or task through and your ability to stay in control of things. A happy ending to your stories will show people that you’re willing to see difficult problems through and that you are interested in your own self-determination.
You’re Charming People, What Next?
Master your storytelling, learn how to talk about yourself but also how to listen to others. Master these fundamentals and you’ll have people crowding around you at every event.
But wait: what’s next? Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have today to talk about your networking skills. Later this week we’ll continue with a Part 2 on Networking fundamentals, and how you can start turning good conversations into good business.
Stay tuned: because the next part is what’s really going to start getting you some of that sweet contract work.