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4 Ways to Improve Your Networking Conversations

Two people holding hands.

You hear it all the time, especially in today’s hustle and gig economy.

“Who you know matters,”

“You need to network.”

So you go to conferences, sign-up for events, and attend the workshop because you know that accomplishing your professional goals is likely to be difficult without someone else’s help.

You also know that showing up is only half of networking. Whether your goal is to land a new job, start a business, join a board, or find a mentor, you will also have to communicate your qualities, accomplishments, and skills in a way that stands out.

People want to work with others they like and know, and in-person meetings - even when brief - offer an opportunity to establish trust, shared values, and likeability in a way that’s difficult to translate via application or e-mail. Simply stated, networking is the opportunity to go beyond communicating your value and begin connecting.

This article tackles four common mistakes that happen when networking and how you can address them.

Mistake #1: You never change how you introduce yourself, no matter where you are and who you meet.

Being prepared is not about a perfect delivery, it’s about relevancy, and that means regurgitating your evergreen, routine, handy-dandy “this is what I do” pitch won’t work. It’s human nature- even the most attentive conversationalists are listening for the “so what?,” which is an abbreviated form of “so what does this mean for me?”

Be intentional. Answering “What do I want people to know about me?” is the meat of any good pitch, but adjusting that answer to include “how does this apply to the person I’m talking to?” is the real flavor. Doing a bit of extra research before you attend the event will further your understanding of the person and their interests. Ask open-ended questions such as “tell me about you” ( Or one of these other great examples from Vanessa Van Edwards). The more you know what they want, the more clear you are on how you can help them. Being intentional is like tailoring, it’s all about the right fit.

Mistake #2: You still aren’t sure what you want.

Time is something we all are increasingly short of. As one of my mentors noted to me during my job hunt a couple years back, “Lawrese, when you’re asking for help from busy people, you become a bullet on a long list of things they have to do. Make it as easy as possible for them to cross you off their list.”

Of course, the best lessons are learned the hard way. He shared this at the end of a conversation where I spent 30 minutes talking about different positions I could be a fit for, without sharing any clear information about how he could help me. In other words, I wasted his time.

The moral of this mistake: people want to help you, but they need to know how, so it’s up to you to get clear on what you want. Go beyond the basics. What kind of board are you looking to join? What kinds of skills are you looking to bring to your next role? What kind of problems are you looking for a mentor to help you solve? There is no such thing as too specific. Clarifying what you are seeking doesn’t eliminate opportunities you might be a fit for as much as it cuts through the clutter of opportunities that are a waste of both your time and the person you’re speaking with.

Mistake #3: You didn’t learn enough about the person you were speaking to.

In an attempt to avoid awkward silence, it’s tempting to share as much information about ourselves as we can. The hope in sharing of course, is that people will find us interesting, but the irony is that the best way to engage another person is to encourage them to talk about themselves. That means you need to find a balance between sharing your story, and asking thoughtful questions that enable them to share parts of theirs.

In all forms of communicating and relationship-building, listening is where we gain the most leverage. As John Maxwell, one of the foremost leadership experts, says in his book “Everyone Communicates, Few Connect”, connecting is about finding common ground. We build bridges when we pay attention to what others are sharing because we can relate their values, preferences, and experiences to our own.

We all want to be understood, so listen closely to their stories and don’t be afraid to say, “I experienced that too.” The more someone else shares, the more likely you are to make associations between them and you. Remember when you talk you’re sharing what you know, and when you listen you’re learning. As a rule of thumb, learn more than you share. 

Mistake #4: You follow-up once but don’t make contact again.

Networking is about building and maintaining relationships, and relationships are not built in a day. Connecting is about liking people, but relationships are about trusting them. As Selena Soo, business and publicity coach says, “The fortune is in the follow-up.” That means stay in touch and up-to-date on what’s going on in their world.

The most fruitful relationships are built on the give and take. Even if they cannot help you now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t help them. Like so many things, in networking, connecting, and contributing - what you give is also what you get.

By Lawrese Brown

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