Preparation: The Cure for the Common Awkwardness
Ugh, I get it… preparation is not exactly the sexiest topic, but it is one of the most important practices for any networker. Too many of us spend no time preparing for a networking situation. As a result, we find ourselves hugging the walls in isolation (I see you, introverts) or hugging the bar in embarrassment (I see you, extroverts). In this post, I’ll breakdown the importance of preparation depending on which side of the “vert” spectrum you reside, and explain my 5-minute preparation plan.
“I’m an introvert and quiet, so I don’t really do well in social/networking settings.”
“I’m an extrovert and go to many social events, but I can’t seem to make any good connections.”
If you’ve ever said or thought either of these statements, preparation is your cure. Let’s start with the introverts. Introverted people, in general, tend to thrive in situations where they have a prior expectation of the details, a structured action plan, and familiarity with the characters and surroundings. Therefore, I find it ironic when introverts disregard that same reliance on preparation and planning when entering an uncomfortable networking setting. Introverts find comfort in knowing they are prepared for the situation before them. When the situation before them is a room full of strangers, that comfort is as necessary as the air in their lungs. So introverts, when it comes to networking, do not skip your natural inclination to prepare, for preparation will breed comfort and comfort will breed confidence. In my experience, there is no one that can command a room more effectively than a confident, quiet networker.
Okay, now… calling all extroverts. Stop whatever you’re doing on the dance floor, pause whatever animated story you were exaggerating for comedic effect, and postpone whatever Vegas trip you were planning with complete strangers… and listen up. Extroverts, myself included, are often under the misguided belief that because we love to talk, we don’t need to plan what/what NOT to say prior to any social setting. This is a recipe for foot-in-mouth syndrome, or at the very least, a wasted opportunity to make a strong impact with your words and enthusiasm. An extrovert without proper preparation is like a pit-bull without a leash. EVERYONE sees you, and no matter how well-intentioned or mild-mannered you think you are, you may find yourself in the pound more times than not.
Whether you identify with the above descriptions in part or in totality, I hope you appreciate the very real importance of networking preparation. In an attempt to reduce my networking awkwardness over the years, I developed a five-minute social preparation plan, I call my Audience Purpose Questions (APQ) prep. Try it out, and let me know if you see an increase in your own networking confidence.
Who is going to be at the event? Is it a group of engineers with 30+ years of experience? If so, you may not want to lead with your comedy routine, but rather, be prepared for professional, possibly industry-specific conversations. Or are you about to walk into a room filled with 25-35-year old sales and marketing professionals? If so, be prepared for some high energy, in-your-face conversations while accepting a plethora of compliments on your attire.
A few months ago, I participated in an executive panel as a part of InternU’s “Ask the Experts” series. Although the audience was the University of Pennsylvania men’s basketball team, my fellow panel consisted of some highly-accomplished executives. I had an interesting audience landscape to consider. I needed to somehow appear relatable to 6’10 collegiate athletes, as a 5’9 non-athlete who gets winded brushing his teeth. At the same time, I had to appear accomplished and knowledgeable to the experienced panelists, as someone who has less than 10 years of after-college work experience. It was important for me to think through that dynamic and consider how I could engage both audiences. Before any event, simply ask yourself, “Who is going to be in attendance, and what should I expect from the crowd?”
Why are you attending this event? If the answer is “because your boss told you to be more active in the market,” try to find a new purpose. Networkers too often overlook this question, and it shows. Spending a minute thinking about your purpose for attending a particular event will not only make you less awkward at the event, but it will also yield a greater return for you and your true purpose.
For instance, did a friend ask you to attend an event, because he/she needed to fill the table seats? Don’t let “filling the seats” be your only purpose. Who else is at the table? What companies will be at the other tables? Maybe you are researching MBA programs at the moment and know that your school of choice will have a table at the event. Make your purpose to meet someone from that school administration and secure a follow-up conversation.
If you can’t determine what you want to gain at the event, try asking yourself what you want to provide at the event. Is it a networking event for junior professionals, and you’re in upper-management? Okay, maybe no one in the crowd is going to buy your product/service or offer you a director position within their company. Use this opportunity to sharpen your mentorship skills with young professionals, learn what’s trending at the junior staff level, or scope out rising talent for your organization. Use your imagination, and find a purpose that transcends the “because I have to” default switch.
This is my favorite piece of advice, and you can use it tomorrow. Before each event, think of two questions that are specific enough to the audience to be original, yet open-ended enough to invoke conversation. There is no greater confidence-booster than resuscitating a flat-lined conversation. You’ve been there before. Four people in a circle, gently sipping drinks and having some good conversation. Then out of nowhere, all of your brains shutdown at the same time. You all look at each other, then your drinks, then the floor, then each other again. Finally someone says, “Man, I can’t wait til this weather improves, am I right?”
Save that guy. Save yourself. Unholster one of your two stock questions, and watch the color flood back into the group’s faces. I did this at a recent energy conference, and it worked beautifully. I asked, “Is the Marcellus Shale gas boom making your financial projections difficult to predict right now?” Depending who’s reading this, you may have just fallen asleep on your laptop, but at an energy conference, a question like that is far more intriguing than, “I hear it’s supposed to rain later this week.” Each time I asked that question, I was guaranteed an additional three to five minutes of conversation and avoided that awkward conversational black hole.
Have those two stock questions ready, and you’ll never be stuck in that awkward silence again. Moreover, everyone in the group will now love you that much more for sparing them the most awkward memory of the night.
Use the five-minute APQ prep before your next networking event, and let me know how it works for you!