One of the constant career tips you’ll hear at every level of business and marketing is to go out and “network”. As a former IT guy, I once thought that networking with Ethernet cables and routers was significantly more fun and entertaining than business networking, where you force yourself to go out and talk to people you don’t know and have no reason to talk to, other than “networking”.
However, that was the wrong way to approach it. A powerful networking trick I learned from one of my martial arts instructors made networking much more valuable AND fun. One night at the dojo, Jon F. Merz was mentioning that as an exercise, he tried to go through his entire high school reunion without giving away any details about his life, always redirecting the conversation back to the person he was talking to. This takes advantage of people’s natural inclinations to want to talk about themselves, and is a handy trick for people who want to gather information without giving away too much.
What a handy, powerful way to reframe networking. What if, instead of viewing it as an exercise in performance and narcissism, you viewed it as intelligence gathering, information gathering? Wouldn’t that change how you acted? Wouldn’t that change your goals, even the questions you asked? Instead of being forced to find a way to talk about yourself (which is difficult to do well), you now have a much simpler laundry list of questions you can start with.
- So, what do you do for work?
- What did you think of the keynote speaker’s talk?
- What brought you to this event?
- What do you make of (industry trend)?
- Who do you work for? (if the badge isn’t visible and you don’t want to stare)
Once you get the conversation going with questions, it’s easy to keep the questions coming, keep the information flowing. Listen for keywords and terms that you legitimately want to know more about and have simple conversation prompters ready.
- I’ve heard of (keyword) but don’t know much about it. Can you tell me a little more about that?
- That’s cool, I’ve always wondered about (topic). Have you worked a lot with it?
- Interesting. How did you deal with that?
Finally, have porcupines and words at the ready as well. Porcupines are a question type where you immediately hand back a question to something someone said, as though they had handed you a porcupine. So imagine someone saying, “Are you having trouble with content marketing?” The porcupine would be, “How about you?” Single question words are also powerful ways to get someone to talk more. When they mention a topic, simply repeat back just the topic and only the topic. For example, someone might say, “Oh, and we’ve been really struggling with keywords and SEO ranking lately” to which you’d say, “Keywords?” and the conversation will flow.
Turn your networking game into an information gathering game. Not only will it become much more comfortable for those of you who are introverted, but you’ll also make the people you’re talking to feel like the star of the show – and that will accomplish your networking goals far faster than talking about yourself.
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I like the techniques you describe here … except the porcupine. I can see using it once. If it’s used again in the same conversation, I’m pretty sure I’d get annoyed with that person. Like most things in life … moderation.
Good advice! I often say that a lifetime in data centers did not hone the interpersonal skills needed in my Marketing role now. I’ve tried using the above advice before and I still feel an urge to talk about myself as well. I’m not sure if it’s because my ego feels like it needs a boost or a desire to share my personal stories to balance out the conversation and establish common ground. Have you also felt that urge to share? If so, how did you deal with it?
Role-play the secret agent role in your mind. You can’t give away too much or you’ll get busted.