All throughout school and even through college, we are taught the importance of an elevator speech or pitch. The thought process behind the elevator pitch is that you needed to get your message across in the time it takes to go up in an elevator. This meant you could have anywhere from 10-60 seconds depending on the building size.
This pitch was supposed to help you get your point across to the listener and thus have them want to hear more from you. The problem with this is right there in the name: “pitch.” I’m sure, just like me, you don’t like being “pitched” anything. Think when you’re buying a car, television or furniture. You want to buy because you want too, not because the salesperson gave you a great “pitch.”
If we can agree to this, then why are you still pitching yourself?
Ditch the Sales Pitch!
Networking is about having conversations; however, it is not as simple as it sounds. You must prepare for this type of conversation. Let’s discuss the necessary preparation before even going to a networking event, in order to understand how to properly network.
1. Research the Event
Before going to any networking event, you must know exactly what it is you’re going to. Why was it created, what is its purpose, why are other people going, etc. By doing thorough research, you will be able to better position yourself when speaking with people.
a. People: Who will be attending this event? The majority of events utilize the advantages of online social media to share their attendee list. Use this list and research the people who are going. What are their job titles, where do they work, what are their hobbies, what articles have they read, what groups do they subscribe to, etc. Use this information to your advantage when speaking to people as it can be a great way to start a conversation.
b. Jargon: Depending on the type of networking event you are going to, this will vary. For example, if you are going to an IT-specific event, then you should read up on the appropriate jargon or “IT speak.” The same would go for any other field; you need to be sure to be able to talk the talk.
c. Current News: Another great way to keep the conversation flowing is to be up on the current news impacting a particular industry, profession or company—again, depending on the type of networking event you are attending. This is critical because this will show your intellectual capacity in a specific field, but more importantly, show that you are passionate about this field. In general, people want to talk to other people who are passionate. Would you want to talk to someone who is boring and doesn’t seem to care about the things that are important to you?
2. Identify Objectives
There are objectives for everything we do in life; it doesn’t matter what it is. We do not do things aimlessly; instead, we expect a certain result from the actions we take. Potential objectives for a networking event could be:
- Meeting new people.
- Landing an informational interview.
- Expanding your knowledge.
- Expanding your professional network.
3. Understand Your Value, Not Your Skills
It’s so easy for us to translate our skills to people. (“I’m an accountant; I’m good at cost analysis, balance sheets and depreciation” or “I’m an IT Help Desk Technician; I’m good at PC repair, networking and ticketing systems.”) There’s nothing wrong with having these skills; however, (to say it bluntly) nobody cares. If that is how you are presenting yourself, how are you differentiating yourself?
Instead, learn your value and show whoever you are speaking to how you’re different than the person standing next to you. Make yourself interesting and describe what value you bring instead of reciting a laundry list of skills.
Now that you have a better understanding of how to properly prepare for networking events, it’s time to learn how to ditch the sales pitch. As we described earlier, networking is about building relationships. This doesn’t mean the outcome or intentions of your networking change; it means the way in which you go about it will be tweaked.
How to Change Your Networking
1. Learn to Provoke
When it comes to networking, the best way to answer a question is with a question. What does this mean? Just about every networking interaction starts like this: “So, what do you do?” / “I do (blank), what do you do?” and that is usually the end of it. If you’re lucky, the conversation will continue on…somehow.
What is the problem here? We, as humans, are programmed to simply answer questions. But when you just answer questions, conversations do not ensue. How do you fix this? Answer the question with a question! You want to force the conversation in the direction you want it to go, essentially forcing the other person to listen to you.
You need to ask yourself “What is a question that I can ask that will be gain a conversational response either way?” For example, when you ask the question “What do you do?” you are simply asking for an answer, not a conversation. Now, if you asked “What do you think the meaning of life is?” I’m sure you would elicit a response. (Of course, this is just an example and not an appropriate question in a networking situation.)
Let me explain further with a question that I use. As an interview and job search coach (and, more importantly, an entrepreneur), I am always looking to help people and make some money at the same time. When I go to networking events and meet new people, they always open by asking what I do. I respond with “Well, let me ask you a question. Are you happy in what you do every day? Do you love your job?” If they say “no,” then I have a potential opportunity to sell what I do, and I am still able to answer their original question. If they say “yes,” then I say “That’s fantastic! That’s what I help people achieve.”
While this is a surefire way to get a conversation going, it needs to be customized to you. Here’s another example. Suppose you are an administrative assistant and you’re asked the same question (“What do you do?”). You could respond with “How often do you find that throughout your day, you’re spending too much time on administrative tasks?” It’s important to pause here because, again, you want to force a response from the other person so you can confirm they are listening. After they give you their answer, you can then respond with how you create efficiencies for people through excellent organization and time-reducing strategies.
2. Conduct an Informational Interview
When you have an informational interview, you do the majority of the question asking with the intent to learn more about the person. Essentially, what you want to do in this exercise is to flatter the person you are speaking to. Put them on the pedestal and make them the center of everything that is happening; give them your undivided attention.
You want to be sure that with this tactic, you drive the conversation in the direction you want. However, this goes back to your planning and, more specifically, your objectives. Let’s assume that you are at this networking event because you’re looking to land a job interview, and let’s assume you are unemployed or seeking a new opportunity. After going through the formalities of introductions, you are asked by the person you’re speaking with, “What brings you here?” or “What do you do?” You could respond with “Well, I’m actually here to talk to you. I would like to learn more about what you do and what your job consists of.” When you do something like this, essentially, you are flattering them. You are telling them that you want to talk to about them and only them—and at the end of the day, who doesn’t love talking about themselves?
With this approach, you are still getting what you originally intended, but in a more roundabout way. At the end of the conversation, you will ask to stay in touch with the person and ask if you can exchange contact information. It will be in that follow-up email to them that you thank them and ask if they can can refer you or recommend that you speak to anyone specifically.
3. Forget What You Want
This is similar to what the previous section described; however, this is more of a mindset. When networking, you need to forget about what you want and instead think about what the other person wants. In other words, to reiterate, ditch the sales pitch. When you make a sales pitch or any kind of pitch, you are saying this is what I want and I want you to listen. Drop that mentality and talk about what the other person wants.
What you want is a secondary goal. Flatter the other person and talk about what they want to talk about. All you care about is the byproduct: getting their contact information. That’s the goal of networking, right? It’s what you do with that contact information where you can reap the benefits of networking!
4. Find Common Denominators
This tactic is done through the act of asking questions and can be combined with the tactics mentioned above. After getting over the initial hurdles, you can begin asking basic questions to find the common denominators you share. For example, what school/university did you both go to? What are your hobbies? Where did you grow up?
Whatever questions you choose, the point is to find something that you can both relate to. If the other person says he went to UPenn and you knew someone who went there, that is something you have in common. If he says his hobby is boating, woodworking, cars, electronics, etc. and you share a similar hobby, then you have something in common. To reiterate, the point of networking is to have conversations. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and, before you know it, you will be knee-deep in a good conversation.
So stop selling and start having real conversations! Make the person want to be genuinely interested in you, and you will find that networking is significantly easier than it seems. If you noticed, everything I described here is more of a conversation starter than a matter of telling you what to actually talk about. They are all different ways to start a conversation, and once you get over that initial hurdle, you are actually having a conversation, and doing that is easy! Just be yourself!
Marc DeBoer is the founder of www.abetterinterview.com. After spending many years as a corporate recruiter and headhunter, he decided to take that knowledge to the general public. A Better Interview, LLC was established to help guide people through the job search process in addition to providing interview coaching. Go to www.abetterinterview.com/articles for their blog!
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Image: Michele Smorgon