Dude, my grandpa Arkie is the most incredible storyteller in the world.
He was a canned soup salesman for probably 50 years. And he still has an uncanny ability to turn any topic into something interesting. Seriously, ANY topic. Red Georgia clay. Golf club etiquette. SAT scores. In his hands, it becomes funny, intriguing, and memorable. This man is a business networking dream come true.
And I inherited exactly zero of that.
No natural networking, make-people-instantly-at-ease soup-seller in this kid.
For years, I was shy, uncomfortable, and pretty uptight when it came to networking. I sounded like one of those nerdy white dudes that black comedians make fun of when describing silly “white people.”
Finally learning to apply my knowledge of storytelling to the process has completely changed my networking game. I’ve learned to relax and approach networking more like a game. In particular, a game closely integrated with the powerful tenets of storytelling and the ethos of human connection.
Networking is a surefire way to grow your business, assuming you know how to tell your story in a way that genuinely connects with others. Because we do business with the people we relate to, identify with, and trust.
So even if you don’t think you’re a great storyteller like my Grandpa Arkie, there’s simple ways you can use a storytelling mindset to connect with people when networking. It took me a while to figure out. So how can you get folks to feel comfortable enough around you to really open up?
Here are my five storytelling-driven tips for better networking. Try them and see how they can shift the pain of networking toward the pleasure of human discovery and connection.
1. Ask a (Much) Better Opening Question
Don’t you HATE the deadly, unoriginal question, “What do you do?”
I know I do. Because it asks someone to define themselves (and their worth) by the work they do. Of course, you’ll need to find out this information in a business networking setting, but why not allow yourself to take a more scenic road?
What might unfold if you asked this question instead:
“What’s giving you energy these days?”
People LOVE this question. It allows flexibility in how they answer. Suddenly you’re no longer sizing them up for status or power; instead, you’re asking them what makes them feel alive. This is a great question to ask whether you’re talking to an intern or a bigshot CEO. You’re likely to be rewarded with deeper connection and rapport.
And yes, feel free to steal it!
Here are three additional questions you can use:
- Where are you from?
- What’s your connection to the [blank] world/industry/host?
- What attracted you to this event?
2. Set Your Emotional Vibe to “Curious”
Do you feel uncomfortable in a room full of strangers? Most people feel the same way. But you’re there, you need to make connections, and this is the time and place to do it. But rather than gritting your teeth and diving in aggressively, take a moment to re-set the desperate or anxious emotional vibe you’re giving off. Relax. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to be painful.
Setting your emotional vibe to “curious” rather than “how-soon-can-I-leave” or “I need everyone to notice me.” This can go a long way to make people feel at ease. It’s like turning on an inner smile; suddenly you become more of a potential friend and ally, and less of a threat.
People tend to open up faster when you show genuine interest and curiosity.
Your body language matters too. Uncross your arms, slow your pace, and look people in the eye. Allow yourself to smile and laugh easily.
Let your aim be to find out about others, rather than to display the polished-to-a-high-gloss facets of yourself that you like to showcase.
Your emotions tell a story.
3. Focus on Relationship over Transaction
I know people who, when facing a major networking event, will set themselves a number of connections to make. Generally it’s a pretty high number, say 10 people in the next hour (then I can leave, thank goodness). Ugh. Who wants to step up and be this dude’s number 8? No, THAT is the guy you are dodging for all you’re worth.
Give up your transactional attitude. Because you are only as strong as your (real) relationships. It’s better to find a handful of people you can get to really know, than it is to employ the spray-gun tactic (makes everyone you meet want to wash their hands afterward).
4. Describe Your Work Like a Story
There comes a time in every conversation where you do need to describe your work.
Don’t blow it by saying “buzzword buzzword buzzword buzzword”.
Or describing yourself as a “consultant”. In fact the worst way to kill a conversation is to say, “I’m a consultant.” Because, you know, who isn’t? And frankly, who cares?
Try a slightly more far-reaching statement (or series of statements) that follow the pattern of Who, What, Who.
- Who you are – teacher, author, speaker, entrepreneur (the more describe the better)
- What you do – that solves the following problem, challenge, or issue (nobody cares about the product itself)
- Who you serve – to a specific audience (define your market like ).
And as you think about your “Who, What, Who” answer, consider the words you use to describe yourself, your solution, and your tribe. Are they human-sounding or just industry-speak? Do they alienate the listener, or draw them in? Refine your language so that you can be engaging, rather than just sounding like a smarty-pants.
5. Have a Nice Business Card
There’s no better way to make a bad impression than when exchanging business cards. Avoid the following: (a) not have a business card, or (b) have a cheap looking business card.
Here’s the thing. Its 2012. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have a dope-looking and professional business card. It doesn’t have to cost you very much either.
Go to Moo.com. Use this link and you’ll save 10%.
Moo.com is where I get my cards done. You can do batches of 50 cards at a time, so there’s no need to order more than you need. The best part is the cutting-edge designed templates you can use (or upload your own). Even the paper is nice and thick and makes a lasting brand impression. Plus the backside of your business card can be customized with different words or graphics. I describe mine as business “tarot cards”, because everyone gets a different card with words on it like Hero, Ethos, Origins, Epic, Truth, and so on. People love getting a card from me. The possibilities are endless as you’ll see with the examples at Moo.com. Again, use this link and you’ll save 10%.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you’re in NYC, join me for my upcoming evening workshop: Storytelling Mojo: How to Get Paid for Being the Real You. It’s an interactive and affordable introduction to better storytelling to better position your work and attract more of the right opportunities. It will also make you a better networker. (I’ve never offered a workshop this cheap before, but the folks at Skillshare convinced me to do so). Your registration includes as a bonus a signed copy of my book Believe Me: a Storytelling Manifesto for Change-Makers and Innovators ($17.95 value). Join the class.
Add Your Comment
Okay, your turn! What’s your favorite networking or conversation-starting question? Leave a comment below and share your secrets and insights.