Talking to new people is hard.
Add the expectation of creating rapport, identifying business goals, and building a real relationship, and you have the recipe for plenty of skeeze-ball low-effort conversations. Hell, even building personal friendships as an adult is exhausting.
We can always rattle off a long list of excuses about how awkward networking is and how busy everyone seems to be to avoid the challenge altogether.
Or we can recognize that, like other life skills, we must grind through the unpleasantries of learning to network because we simply cannot carry the burdens of our careers alone.
Make Networking Personal
Where did you grow up? What influenced you as a kid? Tell me about your hyper dogs. Is your kiddo still throwing up?
It's not likely that you'd lead a new connection through a gauntlet of personal questions; however, it's even more unlikely that you'll build a meaningful relationship if you don't.
You will have a shallow relationship if you can only connect with others on industry buzzwords, job titles, and work responsibilities.
People remember people that they like. And you need to break through the overplayed book on crappy networking by getting personal. But how do you get people to open up without being a total creep?
To encourage deeper conversations, you must volunteer personal information casually. I call this sprinkling (as opposed to dumping, which can be a turn-off).
The first minute or so of a conversation is typically the easiest to pull this off. When someone asks how you're doing, you can answer fine, good, great, whatever—OR you can take a stab at being less predictable and automatic (and therefore unmemorable).
For example, "You know, I would be doing well, but it's been raining for three days in Seattle, and my dogs and kids are starting to get stir-crazy. You're my respite from the chaos. I appreciate you taking a moment to get to know me. Do you happen to be juggling any chaos on your end?"
Suppose you don't want to practice this approach on your VP and C-Suite compadres immediately. In that case, you can always annoy the cashier at your local grocery store by surprising them with your responses to general chit-chat.
Two Ears, One Mouth
Sometimes I'm eager to talk about a personal need—or steer a conversation to a well-known topic of mine selfishly. After all, my time is valuable, and I need to get to the point quickly.
Unfortunately, it feels like I often wait for my turn to speak vs. listening to the discussion. As a result, I do not understand the depth of the conversation or read between the lines of what's said.
My tendency to a me-first disposition has been a destructive force in my career; however, I picked up a tip about humans having two ears and one mouth for a reason. Therefore, we should listen at least twice as often as we speak.
I now apply this concept to networking conversations.
Let's say you have a 30-minute conversation with a new contact. Your concentration should be to spend ~22 minutes of the discussion on them and their needs.
A conversation breakdown like this can be a challenge to pull off naturally. That's because dedication toward another person is unnatural for most people. So you must keep the conversation interesting to achieve the right flow.
You Work For Them
Similarly to my interview tips on "pretending you already have the job," in networking, you can pretend that you work for the person.
If you take this mindset, you'll immediately notice that the problem is you're not sure what your job is, if you can be valuable, and what you must accomplish. BINGO.
Networking conversations are exploratory, and it's your job to answer the questions mentioned above.
This mindset hack can help you think about more interesting questions to keep the conversation centered on the other party for a 2/3 minimum split.
If you've read my blog for some time, you may notice that this approach is a notable distinction from imposing the direction you want the conversation to go. It's contrarian advice from how I recommend taking conversation ownership while interviewing.
That's because networking conversations are typically top-of-funnel. If you lay it on too thick before you have the necessary context, you're more likely to waste your time.