Discover the Surprising Secret to Effective Networking
Do you dread networking at events? Or if you don’t, ever wonder why some of your new connections fall flat? Lucky you, we have science-based tips and techniques on how to network better from leading expert, Dr. Raina Brands, professor at University College London School of Management, who has spent her career studying women in the workplace.
Dr. Brands presented her networking methods at the sold-out, first-ever hertelier “Morning Shift” event for women in a glamorous penthouse suite at the Four Seasons Ten Trinity place in June. That’s right, we held a networking event about networking! Very meta! Here are the highlights:
Your Existing Networks and How They Work
Before getting into the networking tips, Dr. Brands explained that we all have networks made up of strong ties–close family and friends–and weak ties, people you’d stop to chat with, say in an airport, to those that you casually meet over the course of life. Dr. Brands cited the famous sociological study “The Strength of Weak Ties,” by Dr. Mark Granovetter, proposing the theory that most opportunities come from our weak ties, which has since been backed up by studies.
Strong versus Weak Ties in Your Network
While strong ties help you through big life challenges professionally, like building your reputation, getting a promotion or a new venture off the ground, and personally through major transitions like marriage or a breakup, having children, or grieving the loss of a loved one, weak ties give you access to diverse perspectives, new ideas, and opportunities.
The issue with weak ties is they lack the trust of strong ties…you simply don’t have the time or opportunity to get to know them as well. Dr. Brands referred to noted British anthropologist and researcher, Robin Dunbar, who observed that humans can only maintain between 5 - 10 very close relationships, and in order to have another close relationship you must lose one of your existing relationships. The conundrum: how do we cultivate trust with weak ties, without disrupting our inner circle?
Cultivating Trust: Networking is a Two-Way Street
The best way to cultivate trust in weak ties may shock you–it is to ask for help. Why? Because helping others makes people happy. We shy away from asking for help because we don’t want to bother other people, assuming our request will feel like an inconvenience to them. But in fact, the opposite is true: people want to make a difference and they feel good when they can help others, said Dr. Brands.
She cited the work of Wayne Baker, a management professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, who offers a SMART way to ask for help:
S––Specific. A specific request is more effective than a vague one because it triggers people’s memory of who and what they know. For example, if you’re looking to change jobs, be specific about the company or even position. Do you need advice? Ask for an introduction to a specific person that you know is in their network. A vague request is unlikely to be answered.
M––Meaningful and important to you. When others know why you are making the request, they are more motivated to respond. How is the request going to help you, explain.
A––Action-oriented. This is the call for help, Dr. Brands explained the difference between saying “I don’t understand data,” versus “I need to add a data analytics person to my team.”
R––Real Need. Big or small, your request should be within the realm of possibility.
T––Time-bound. Every request should have a due date. If you’re afraid putting a due date might appear too demanding, Dr. Brands noted the opposite is true. A deadline allows people to evaluate whether they will be able to follow through with your request, or not.
Top tip from Dr. Brands: Do not be prejudiced by your perceptions about the capabilities of any random meet-up – you never know what is possible!
Testing the SMART Method: IT WORKS!
The group was then broken into small groups to try the SMART method. We each had to think of one ask–personal or professional–and present our request to the group. The helpers only needed to think of a connection that could help, not solve the problem! Turns out, not only does this make for more interesting conversation it does foster immediate connection (buh bye, awkward small talk!). We each left with the ability for meaningful follow-up with each person in our group, offering them the chance to help us and feel good!
Honestly, everyone was slightly blown-away, by both the simplicity and effectiveness of the exercise. The vulnerability in asking for help actually made everyone feel more comfortable. Dr. Brands suggests layering the SMART technique into your overall approach for networking at events:
1. Be intentional. Before an event, get the list of attendees if you can. Then think about who you want to meet and why…ideally, you might come prepared with a specific “ask.”
2. Don't be afraid to approach people. People attend events expecting to meet new people, so don't hesitate to strike up a conversation. (See below for community tips on this!)
3. Follow up. After you've met someone, keep the conversation going and if you’ve been SMART about it, you have a meaningful way to reconnect! At a minimum, connect on LinkedIn with a personal note! Reference the event and your specific request in the message. This also helps them remember how you met.
4. Give back. As you now know, effective networking is a two-way street, so be sure to offer your help and connections to anyone and everyone you meet! Added bonus: it will make you feel good!!
BONUS SECTION FOR INTROVERTS: How to make the first move at an event
Do you dread going to networking events where you don’t know anyone? I do! The struggle is real to “make the first move” when approaching strangers, although the SMART method is sure to help. We asked the hertelier community for their best tactics.
Look for Loners
Look for other people who look like they're on their own or are similarly standing in semi-awkward silence, says Stephanie Ricca, editorial director at Hotel News Now. Then she starts with something about the party, like, "Did you try the signature cocktail?" or "Did you see that person at the charcuterie table touching all the cheese with his bare hands?" Stephanie says this "works a charm every time (you just hope one of the people you're talking to is not also the same person who was touching all the cheese)"
Adding on to Stephanie’s remarks, events consultant Julie Miller likes to talk about the space, "Isn't this a great venue?"
Brand-builder, speaker, and employee relations specialist, Amber Erickson-Hurdle, starts with this bold opener, "Hey there. I'm Amber. I don't know anyone here, so help me feel less awkward." She adds, “Because I'm clearly not shy, it usually sparks a laugh and a genuine conversation. The fact of the matter is many of the people in the room who do know people might be introverted, have social anxiety, or simply have had a bad day! Most people are happy you started the conversation and show genuine interest in them.”
When conversation slows, “I simply go back to pure honesty to wrap it up without feeling stuck to one long conversation: ‘Well, since there are probably more folks we should connect with, I won't hog your attention, and I'll go see who else will be nice to me!’ Then if I plan to follow up I'll commit to it or simply thank them for the conversation and move on.”
Open with a Compliment
Hotel marketing guru and host of the Top Floor Podcast, Susan Barry, credits her Southern roots with her opening tactic, “Give someone a compliment! Such as, ‘I love your earrings,’ then ask some questions about them. You can keep doing this over and over until you hit it off with someone.” Fellow Southerner Curtis Crimmins, CEO of Roomza, also uses this approach with great success.
Pretend you are on your way to meet someone…
“I always walk into the room like I see someone I know across the room. I head that way and usually find someone along the way to say ‘hi’ to,” says retired hotel sales professional, Mark Ginna. “People are more apt to speak to you or approach you if you have an air of confidence and act like you belong there.”
Put a conversation starter on your nametag
This is a clever suggestion by Andrew Hopson, Food & Beverage Supervisor at Sea Island Company, “If the event gives out name tags, my favorite thing to do is write a conversation starter (could be a question, or interesting fact). So, when people walk up to you, they know exactly where to start. It could be something simple like, 'ranch vs blue cheese: which is better?' Or 'last place you traveled'. It helps people open up easier.”
Head to the bar!
If all else fails, get on line at the bar, “I’m an introvert so these things are always a challenge,” says Cara Whitehill, founder, Unlock Advisors. “If I’m solo and/or don’t know anyone well I’ll usually start by chatting with other folks in line for a drink. That also gives me some built-in ‘friends’ to chat with later during the event. I typically will ask them how they’re connected to the event or host as an opener, and then take it from there (eg, current events, interesting podcasts/books, hobbies, or industry-specific stuff.”
Stacy Silver, president, Silver Hospitality Group, also heads to the bar, but with a more intentional opener, “Hi I am Stacy and I promised myself I would meet three people and learn something about them since I do not know anyone. Can you help me?” Stacy claims this method, “Works like a charm! And half the time they introduce me around as well!”
If all else fails, comment on the weather or traffic…
Stephanie Leger, Chief Excellence Officer at First Rate Hospitality and podcast host of “WTF! Walk the Floor”, says her go-to is traffic, “I'll make a funny comment about the city traffic. Something to relate to and if it is a convention where everyone is staying at the hotel, then comment on the elevator traffic.”
Bottom line: Networking works better with a SMART strategy. Go with the intent to help others as a natural and effective way to build your network, and it will make you feel good as an added bonus!