Twelve Essential Principles Of Business Networking
So, you’re a developer, a CEO, a small business owner, all of the above, or [your answer here], and you’ve recently emigrated to the United States, or maybe you’re just looking to do business in the West. You’re ambitious, confident in your talent, you have some proficiency in English, and you’ve just walked into your first networking event in the USA, or maybe you’ve just sat down with a potential American client, investor, or partner… what now?
Last Month Amanda Kinney and Fedor Solokov of ELK Academy sat down with Openland to discuss ELK’s Business Communication module, a course designed to demystify the culture and standard practices of doing business in the West, and to help students develop a deeper and more global understanding of who they are as professionals.
Amanda explains, “Our students’ testimonials usually sounds something like this:
“I’ve studied the language for years, I can read in English, I can watch movies, but when it comes to really getting out there as a business person, networking and making connections, I find that part to be really difficult. How can I overcome my huge fear of speaking in English, in order to represent myself not just as an individual, but as the voice of my company?”
Across all levels of study, one of the biggest roadblocks to learning a new language is the difference between technical proficiency, “the nuts and bolts,” and actual communication.
“It’s a lot easier than people think,” Amanda reassures us, “here’s the truth: when it comes to communication in business, what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it.”
Below are ELK’s Twelve Essential Principles of Business Networking:
1 Networking is like dating
When attending a conference, everyone feels that they have to immediately sell themselves. The reality is, nobody wants to hear your pitch first thing out of the gate. If you were to go on a first date, and immediately say, “Oh my god, I think we need to get married, and have babies, come home and meet my mom tonight,” it’s probably not going to work out. When you’re meeting people for the first time in a networking environment, you want to make sure, using this principle of dating as your metric, that you’re not coming on too strong. Don’t present someone with your ten-year business plan right away, don’t launch into figures and numbers, or give a memorized presentation on your big ideas. Start the conversation by showing interest in the other person. Instead of forcing your agenda onto other people, begin by finding common ground: look for the points of connection where the two of you can build something into the future.
2 Put a cup in your hand ☕️
This simple pro tip can accomplish a lot. You’ve just arrived at a conference: instead of walking straight into your first conversation, head to the bar and order a drink. It can be coffee, soda water, whatever you want! Stopping at the bar gives you an opportunity to scan the room and make a game plan. As you walk, you’re looking for open pairs: people who aren’t facing each other directly, whose body language indicates they are open to people joining their conversation. Now you’ve left the bar and walked up to an open pair, but you don’t want to interrupt the conversation — having a drink in your hand will also help you look and feel less awkward while you take a moment to just listen. Another great reason to grab that drink: someone just asked you a tough question in English, and you need a moment to collect yourself — take a sip.
3 Use three principles of starting the conversation
1) Take a Deep Breath
Fill your lungs up with air as you’re walking up to the group, and then slowly release that breath. This will automatically calm you down, and by pushing your shoulders back you’ll be presenting a stronger front. A little taller, more confident, approaching people with these big shoulders automatically helps you project yourself as a leader.
Eastern Europeans in particular are famous for not smiling — they’re considered to be stand-offish. When you’re smiling and looking people in the eye, you’re projecting warmth, and an eagerness to communicate — that’s our first goal!
3) Ask Open-Ended Questions to find connections
The best questions prompt the other person to respond with more than a simple, short (or one word) answer. Questions like “What do you do?” lead to answers like “I’m a software engineer.” This is not the way to get a person talking. A question like, “Tell me what type of technology you’re excited about today,” or, “What are you interested in getting out of this experience” invites the other person to tell their story, and allows you to learn about that person and discover things you have in common.
4 Avoid monosyllabic responses
People have a tendency to shut down and put a guard up when they have to use a foreign language in high-pressure situations. We’ve found that our Eastern European students especially tend to retreat into monosyllabic responses in order to not reveal that they might lack some knowledge of English grammar. But it’s not just about the grammar, it’s a cultural thing. You have to be polite. And you want to go beyond just directly answering the question — you want to add a little personal flavor, and invite further conversation.
5 Pass the Ball
This is a foundational principle of all conversation but is especially true of networking and small talk. When you’re speaking with someone, make sure you’re “passing the ball” back and forth. Eastern Europeans in particular like to get pretty serious pretty fast, and they often hold onto the ball for a long time. Whereas Americans get bored rather quickly, and they tend to pass the ball back and forth much faster. This means you can’t get into really big, serious concepts in small talk, because you only have 20–40 seconds before you have to pass the ball.
And when you’re not holding the ball, make sure that you’re ready to receive it: make sure that you’re being an active listener. That means an “Uh-huh,” “Me too!” “That’s so cool,” “That reminds me of…” All of these phrases, all of these “nodding alongs” will encourage your partner: it helps them understand that you’re excited about them and engaged in what they are saying.
A note from Fedor:
“Let’s consider this comparison: there’s tennis, and badminton. In tennis, you want to serve the ball so hard that the other player can’t return it. But in badminton, the goal for the two players is to try to keep the ball in the air, as long as they can, passing back and forth. This is what small talk is all about: sustaining this volley, holding the conversation in the air together as long as you can, by making it easy for the other person to receive the ball and pass it back to you.”
6 “Yes, and…”
This is borrowed from a basic principle of Improv: whatever someone says to you in conversation is a gift for you to build on — not something to negate. In small talk situations, look for ways to spin what’s been offered to your conversation into something positive. You want to say “Yes” whenever you can to the other person. For example, if someone says to you: “I really love soccer, what about you?” And let’s say you don’t like soccer, you don’t want to respond with: “No, I hate it, I think all sports are terrible.” Coming back with a negative response kills the conversation. It makes the other person feel stupid for even bringing up the subject, and no one wants to feel stupid. Instead, try something like this: “I really haven’t been interested in soccer up until recently, but we just had the World Cup in Russia and that was really exciting.” Talking about something related, without saying “Yes! I also love soccer!” is just as good of a connection, and so much better than saying “No, I hate it.” You’re looking to find common ground with people, and it’s great if the connection has nothing to do with business. Not everything you say has to be a set-up for your ultimate business goal. Sometimes networking is just about discovering the people in the room that you want to grab a beer with later.
7 Take Care of the Other Person
A common complaint from students is
“I don’t care about small talk because I’m real, I only care about what’s important, and I want to get down to business and be honest about things.”
And while that’s the ultimate goal, remember our first date principle: putting all your cards on the table from the beginning scares people off. Practice holding yourself back a little bit, and getting interested in other people.
Something else we hear from students is:
“I don’t want to compliment people. I don’t want to say that I have things in common with people if it’s not true.”
Great, don’t. You should be authentic, it’s important that you’re not lying to people, or pretending to like people you don’t like. That being said, the whole reason for communication at a networking event is to try to make a new contact. You have to reach your hand out to the other person. We’re here to build each other up, we’re here to make connections, so look for honest ways that you can complement the other person. Look for things that you really do want to have in common. Don’t come into the conversation looking to say “No.” People like people who compliment them, who say nice things about them. Even smiling at the other person is a compliment. When you smile at me, when you look me in the eye, I feel good looking, I feel more confident, I feel more intelligent. I want to keep talking to you.
8 Don’t Memorize Your Pitch
Nailing your pitch is not about memorizing a speech to be delivered by rote, it’s about getting comfortable with expressing who you are as a professional. Just as open-ended questions are a way of inviting people to tell their stories, talking about yourself should be an invitation to the person you’re speaking with — allow them to guide you in how to tell your story. You want to present multiple paths of conversation for people to walk down: touch on different facets of what you do, which could interest a variety of people in different fields, and see what they latch onto. This story is going to change every time you say it. So don’t memorize your pitch! Instead, learn who you are. You’ll need to think about yourself, and your company, a lot. You’ll need to think about what makes you different and special. The goal is that every single time you give your pitch, you’ve changed the answer. You’ve tailored it to the person you’re talking to.
9 Gauge interest and make a date.
Our students sometimes joke that, in America, whatever idea you pitch to people, they say, Great! Exclamation point! When you talk to investors they always say “Yeah that’s great, that’s amazing.” But then they never follow up, they don’t respond to your emails. Americans like to be positive (which is why you need to be positive too!). They tend not to reveal negative reactions at face value, at least not at first. The best way to determine a person’s interest is by how specific they are.
Are they saying, “Hey, this was great, we should do it again sometime!” Or, are you looking at your calendars, setting the date, and making it happen? The more specific people are, the more interested they are. This is true not only of setting dates in the future — how specific are their questions? How much are they getting into the minutiae of what you’re saying?
And when you’re looking for opportunities to continue the relationship, remember to use the Yes Ladder. Get people to commit to a little Yes and that will help them move onto a bigger Yes in the future. Instead of pitching your whole idea the first time you meet them, invite them to get a coffee with you in a week. Then, ask them to have a meeting. Push them forward slowly.
10 Make a confident exit
So you’re at a conference, drink in hand, you’ve initiated small talk, you’re smiling, you’re asking questions and passing the ball, but then at some point, you feel the conversation becoming a little tiring. How do you exit beautifully? Here are a few things to keep in mind. First: keep the conversation short. Networking events are designed for people to converse for a short amount of time, they are expected to disengage, work the room, and talk to other people. In fact, the longer you stay with one person, the less interesting you seem, and your ideas become less and less exciting to them.
Second: make sure you’re walking away with the right information. Once you’ve made the connection and established that the other person is interested, exchange business cards, LinkedIn accounts, or whatever it is that you’re doing to connect and make a plan for the future.
Finally: be honest. There’s nothing wrong or rude about saying you’re ready to move on. A great way to do it is to invite the other person along. Try this:
“It has been such a pleasure speaking with you, I’m really excited to hear more about your project, but I know that you and I are both interested in making contacts, so why don’t we join another conversation together?”
This allows the two of you to walk up to another open pair together, and naturally, the conversation will split off into two new groups.
Finally, keep in mind that in networking, just like in dating, you have to kiss a lot of frogs. It’s likely that at some point you’ll go to a conference, start talking to somebody, and there’ll just be no connection. In cases like this, it’s completely acceptable to say, for example:
“I’m so glad to have learned a little bit more about what you’re doing with your company, I’m actually here to learn more about [X], but thank you for your time!”
And if you can follow that up by giving them the contact information of someone else who might be interested in what they do, even better, but don’t be afraid to tell people, this connection just isn’t right.
11 Learn the Rules and Play the Game
The experience of going to networking events and conferences might feel weird, at first. Outside in the “real world,” on the subway and in the street, people don’t typically just walk up to strangers and ask what they do for a living. But inside a networking room, everyone is playing a very specific game, and the only rule of the game is that everyone wants to make new contacts.
It’s totally normal to just walk up to someone and start talking. They will not think you are weird, they won’t be thinking “why is this person talking to me?” They are playing the same game you are playing. And now that you’re playing the game, find ways to make it fun for yourself: by the end of this game today I will have gone up to 15 people, or: can I say orange in a conversation with someone? Don’t take yourself too seriously when you play the game — it helps you to be relaxed and more open, and you’ll actually look more confident.
12 Remember: the universe supports you
It’s normal to feel isolated and overwhelmed by the prospect of giving a presentation or attending a networking event. But the reality is that everyone else who attends a conference wants to gain the exact same experience that you do. There’s not a single person in a networking room that came there so that they could make fun of other people, or shut them down. Everyone is there because they have common goals. It’s something to keep in mind when you walk through the door: the universe is not against you in this process. And of course, your friends at ELK are always here to support you as well!