Some years ago, the British comedian and Monty Python member, John Cleese participated in a series of sales and management training videos. To this day, I still laugh remembering one of them, “How Not to Exhibit Yourself.” There are other videos in this series, all of which remain very relevant. “How Not to Exhibit Yourself” focuses on trade show behavior and particularly how to effectively connect with potential customers, but in my mind, the humorous lessons offered by Cleese could just as easily apply to networking with people in general. This further caused me to recall an equally relevant and recent Wall Street Journal essay, “Networking for Actual Human Beings.” My key point is that in whatever field you work, your ability and skill in relating to people and communicating effectively will be crucial to your success.
My UBC Management students and graduates know the importance I place on interpersonal and public speaking in management, and particularly also in engineering and entrepreneurial roles. I like to repeat Warren Buffett’s endorsement of public speaking as the most important skill he learned as a young man. No matter what you do, you will need to be able to clearly, comfortably and effectively communicate the ideas or projects you are promoting in order to succeed in life. Yet you may not know that speaking with others is the most difficult and intimidating thing for most people.
People I talk with often tell me how much they hate networking or simply meeting new people. The truth is, deep down, so do I and many other people. Recent research has shown that people feel that explicit business networking makes them feel as if they are insincere or manipulative. The result is that much networking is unsuccessful, and people will naturally gravitate to speaking with people they already know. I often convince myself that I have an excuse to not attend a networking event or to meet a new contact.
I have some recommendations on how I overcome these issues:
Persevere. Just Do It! This is the hardest part. I am at my core an introvert. Invariably I do not want to go, but force myself to go, even telling myself that I will find an excuse to leave early. Rationalize however you want, but do it. In my case, after the encounter, I surprise myself with the results. Suggestions to avoid networking events altogether and to focus on people you already know may make you feel more comfortable, but you will not grow in your self-confidence. You can still devote time to renewing your existing connections which will become even easier and productive.
Begin by going off topic. Be conversational not business focused. Think of some topic bound to be of conversational interest. Literally, avoid discussing business or the other person’s details. Before you enter the event, take some time to think of some conversation starters unrelated to all the obvious “groaners”: your job, goals, education or the other person’s details. This is also a crucial key to successful public speaking. What is your opener to grab the audience, one person or many? “Did you see that post today by Larry Page on Internet privacy?”
Let the conversation evolve organically. Don’t force it. Just enjoy the moment, and if the person opens up to you, you can seamlessly move into direct business. If not, you may still have made a new friend.
Whatever you do, be yourself. Be candid. You will feel better about yourself in the process. It may not always work, but if the person doesn’t appreciate your openness and honesty, you have just saved yourself a lot of valuable time.
Know that not every encounter will work. That’s normal, inevitable and perfectly OK. However, if you do suck it up and try novel new approaches to speaking with people and building their interest and trust, you will improve your success, and success breeds success.
I don’t agree with all the points in the following Wall Street Journal essay, but I accept that there are other points of view on the tough topic of fear of networking and public speaking, and some of the discussion below may be helpful to you.