To interact or engage in informal communication with others for mutual assistance. That s the definition of networking, according to the American Heritage College Dictionary. It sounds simple, yet most of us could use some tips making the most of this promising win-win activity.
To that end, I asked Debra Fine, a former engineer-turned-corporate speaker who has helped employees at IBM, the U.S. Treasury Department and Wells Fargo Banks develop conversational skills, to share her best tips. Here s what the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Networking Skills and Leave a Positive Impression! (Hyperion, 2005) had to offer:
LESSON NO. 1
It s up to us to take the risk of walking up to somebody new, Fine says. The number one mistake people make at a networking event is hoping someone they know will show up. We d rather talk to someone familiar because we fear being rejected by someone we don t know, she says. To put the risk in perspective, Fine notes, It s far riskier to get on an airplane.
Shy people, in particular, have difficulty meeting new people because they worry people are watching their every move. They tend to believe there s some kind of spotlight in these rooms and everyone knows we re here, she says. Not so.
Fine suggests looking for people who are standing by themselves, not eating a meal. While there s no guarantee that will work, you have likely spotted a more approachable person, she says.
Pay attention to your body language. If you act nervous, others will feel uncomfortable. Act confident and comfortable even when you re not, Fine says.
LESSON NO. 2
It s up to you to assume the burden of your comfort in social situations. If you do not remember someone s name, you should not focus on your own potential for embarrassment. Simply admit the problem in a polite manner: I m sorry but I can t remember your name. That s a much more productive step than avoiding your potential contact to protect yourself from a little discomfort.
Come prepared to any gathering ready to make conversation. I used to hope everyone else would come up with things to talk about, Fine admits. Now before I enter a room or sit down to lunch, I have two or three things I want to talk about. Fine calculates that this prep work takes two to three minutes. One obvious ice breaker: What got you involved in this organization?
Fine suggests avoiding questions like Are you married? and Where are you from? because they can lead to dead-end conversations. Instead ask for opinions about relevant or interesting issues. Listen carefully to the answers for information that can keep the conversation going, she adds.
LESSON NO. 3
Follow Up. Not in an obnoxious way, Fine warns. Rather than giving out your card, ask people for theirs. Express appreciation and then use what she calls one of the best exit lines: Is it ok if I give you a call next week? Rather than impose yourself, make sure you have an invitation to follow up after the event.
Be mindful as you finish every conversation. Make a positive impression by shaking hands and saying goodbye as you leave, Fine advises.
Conducted strategically, small talk can result in a big payoff.
Leslie Whitaker Got a problem at work? Leslie Whitaker, co-author of The Good Girl s Guide to Negotiating, would like to hear from you. Send Leslie an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to P.O.Box 5063, River Forest, Ill. 60305