Networking. It’s like sucking on a lemon.

It needn’t be.

A nine-point plan and some golden rules.

I’m going to a conference next week.

It’s an important one for me. An experience I really value for a number of different reasons. I’m really looking forward to it, specifically the opportunity to meet new people in an industry I really care about and fascinated by.

Paradoxically, the prospect of meeting people can sometimes feel like the equivalent of sucking on a lemon.

A post about networking by another attendee – arts chap David Taylor – provided the inspiration for this one here.

I’m using this post to capture how I prepare for networking, in the hope that anyone attending a conference looking for tips on how to tackle the daunting prospect of networking might benefit.

Why are you attending?

The most important thing to do first is to think about why you’re attending the event in question.

In my case, being present at the conference I’m attending will …

1. … give me a birds eye view of the industry or sector
2. … give me an opportunity to feel part of that sector
3. … trigger my thinking
4. … make digital contacts real
5. … help me observe behaviours
6. … be a highly efficient way of meeting people

Keep the expectations broad and loose

Over my career I’ve seen my hopes for networking shift from very specific and tangible outcomes (resulting in relatively high expectations and a high likelihood of disappointment) to very broad expectations (low pressure, high wins, much fun).

For example. Head into a conference convinced that meeting one person will result in a new job there and then is a surefire way of piling on the pressure and making disappointment all the more likely.

Go into an interaction on the basis that you are quite literally just meeting someone for the first time and you’re immediately in the right frame of mind to give of your best.

My NINE point plan

There are a number of things I remind myself about thinking and doing ahead of any event where the opportunity for networking presents itself.

A word right from the start. Don’t confuse introversion with shyness. There are lots of definitions about introverts and extroverts. Also, don’t label people introverts or extroverts – it’s quite judgy. Don’t label yourself an introvert. You might be someone with a preference for introversion.

If you’re someone with a preference for introversion then, as it happens, one-to-one conversations (which networking is) are your bag.

Shyness is something different. These nine points can help offset some of those feelings of shyness which are essentially powered by a lack of self-belief, or a lack of self-confidence.

This is about creating a new habit. Success begets success. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it just makes the process a little more familiar.

1. Take your time over introductions

Shake hands and repeat the person’s name in full at the same time. If you don’t you will forget it. Remember to ask their name (and give yours in full).

2. Don’t think of what to say, think of what to ask

Most people like being asked about themselves; it gives them a reason to access things which at important to them. Give people permission to emote about themselves and they will in a short space of time warm to you. Make people will remember you more for how you made them feel than what you said. You’ll come across more authentic that way.

3. Ask open questions

Use what, when, who and how. Never use why – it usually prefaces a judgy question and will put people on the defensive.

Don’t fall into the trap of asking something like “Did you enjoy the presentation?” Closed questions that elicit yes/no answers are the equivalent of stalling the car on a frosty morning.

Keep the conversation going by asking instead, “What did you enjoy about the presentation?”

4. Don’t ask people what they do for a living or what their job is. Never.

They may not say it, but asking people what their job is basically asking what their identity is. Some people aren’t comfortable talking about themselves in this way as it triggers all sorts of negative thinking in the mind of the person answering the question.

In this way, be wary of those people who are comfortable telling you what their job title is, especially if you haven’t asked them.

It’s also a phenomenally boring subject. I’m a person not a job title.

Instead, get your networkee to hint at what they do best, by asking something like, “What’s been keeping you busy just recently?” The answer will give you enough information to formulate a follow-up.

5. Don’t jump in

Let the person say what they want to say. Pause a beat after they’ve finished and before you start responding.

Acknowledge their contribution by saying something like ‘that’s really interesting …’ You could reflect back to them what you’ve heard in a summary – people love to be reassured that what they’ve said has been understood (even if they don’t realise it).

Avoid ‘stepping in’ by sharing any similar experience you’ve had to the one you’ve just heard. It’s not wrong per se, it just won’t keep the conversation going.

You can keep a conversation flowing by asking another a follow-up question, using a word the person said in their previous utterance as the basis for a clarifying question (this will give them more time to expand their thinking, and get them feeling more relaxed).

6. Wait for them to ask you something

At some point in the process, the person you’re talking to is going to experience a moment when they want to ask you a question (some might regard this as a moment of guilt). That’s when you have the floor and the responsibility throws to them to keep things flowing.

7. Deal with interruptions by being utterly charming

If someone you know pops up to talk to you, immediately welcome them into the conversation, introduce everyone and provide a quick summary of what was being talked about. People will LOVE you for this.

8. Don’t scan the room

Don’t let your eyes dart around looking behind the head of the person you’re listening to, looking for someone else to talk to. It’s really fucking rude and people do notice.

If you need to terminate the conversation for whatever reason just say, ‘would you excuse me … there’s someone I need to catch before the next session about x’. The mere act of seeking permission from someone to terminate the conversation is sufficient courtesy (and also rather charming). Ensure that the pace of your delivery remains consistent with everything else you’ve said.

9. Have your personal introduction ready

There will eventually come a time when someone asks you what you do. Prepare yourself by preparing a sentence to answer the following three questions (nb you’ll need to practise this alone over and over again): what three things brought you to where you are now in your career? Why do you do what you (what’s the sense of purpose that drives what you do)? And how do you deliver on that sense of purpose.

Bonus tip. Have an answer to this question up your sleeve: if you could choose, what would you like to work on next?

Golden Rules

1. Be prepared to answer any questions you’ve asked someone else.
2. Stock up on some business cards – nothing fancy; belt and braces stuff.
3. Your best outcome is to generate leads, but even that may not happen.
4. Don’t upsell ever – it’s crass
5. Trust your senses – if there’s no rapport you won’t want to work with them anyway.
6. But, don’t go into something not wanting to get on with somebody, that’s self-sabotage.
7. Look for any opportunity to compliment.
8. Follow up on emails to reinforce new connections.
9. Be authentic.
10. Note. There’s not that much time available to meet, greet and gas as you might think. Bonus.

Jon Jacob is a BBC-trained an ICF accredited coach with extensive experience supporting leaders, entrepeneurs, and new-jobbers in the arts, higher education and media industries. He also works as a team facilitator, trainer, and content strategist focussing on the arts in particular. More information available here.