Networking for Beginners
In this age of connectivity and mobility, one would think that the youth of today were genetically engineered to conduct small talk (SMS style) and connect easily with strangers by virtue of their membership to what is known as Generation-Z, or to be more precise, Gen “V” for Vietnam. This assumption was confirmed, more or less last night 1st of March 2012 when I attended two networking events with my Professional Communication, Client Management students.
But no matter how amazing my students worked the room, they were behind from the get-go because unlike their classmate Luan and Huong, none of them came prepared with business cards! There were definitely some notes to be taken down as the night progressed as I have also been out of the networking loop for sometime since I’ve put on hold my work in industry, and so the process of writing this article comes as a welcome refresher course in the art of effective networking. Here are the top three observations and recommendations to improve future forays in networking.
BE FLUID. A networking event is a place of motion. Good events are held in places where people can mingle and walk about. Unfortunately most venues in HCMC can be quite small. The first event we went to, the Vietnam Creative Circle (VCC) was in Alibi bar in District 1. It had a narrow hallway with two sets of couch areas to the right and a couple of tall tables with chairs on the other side. Indeed the place was cozy enough to have an intimate conversation with a stranger. One of my students Huong even commented days prior that she would rather go to this event because the place is ‘small’ (and had no entrance fee). But, when a bunch of RMIT VN students from Professional Communication, Design and Commerce are all trying to get an introduction with host Daniel Gordon Jones at the far end of the bar, things can be pretty tight… and messy. Needless to say, I left the other students whisked away my Prof. Comm. students to the second event organized by Vero Communication at the beautiful sprawling garden of Ly Club in District 3. Now that was a sight to behold! Despite the 100,000 VND entrance fee the venue was teeming with from my humble estimate, 200 guests from various industries!
LOOSE THE PACK. Did I say ‘a bunch of RMIT VN students’? Correction, I mean ‘an ARMY of students’! I believe in strength in numbers, sure we always teach team work in the classroom. But if you come to a networking event with a whole battalion, and actually stayed with them the whole time… you will not be able to meet new people. My sweet students kept on gravitating towards me like moths to light. And more than once I had to ‘shoo’ them away. My personal favorite? A segue… whilst talking to a new contact, a student came by to join the conversation, I would introduce them and, then make my excuse to fill-up my glass. Magic!
If you are new at networking, its good to have at least one friend to go around with. You can even help entertain each other when there are no other interesting prospects around. But keep it to one wing man. If you are by yourself, all the better! Try this, as soon as you enter the door… pick a spot in the middle of the room, preferably near the bar so you are in a good position to chat-up someone waiting for their drink to be served and also have a clear view of who is coming in. Work the room slowly, first with your eyes. Who is alone? Who is getting a lot of attention? Are the organizers of the event there? Pick a target. Then another, then another.
One thing that turns me off at networking events is that when people who already know each other simply talk to each other. At the first event, it seemed to me that the VCC was a ‘gentleman’s club’ and I mean that in the most respectful way. That, most of the people who go there are veterans of the Vietnam advertising industry and they already know each other and despite belonging to competing agencies they are good mates outside of work. I’ve been to a couple of VCC gatherings in the past when I was working in TV production and I did notice this pattern. It’s quite hard to strike up a conversation with the attendees because they tend to sit and chat around with just their inner circle. Hmmm… perhaps that’s why they call the group the creative ‘circle’? I would definitely think twice in going there again.
Another pack to loose? The backpack! Or big laptop bag. These items will just slow you down and get in the way of moving around freely… Again, think fluidity.
HIT OR MISS. Not all networking events will get you the right match, this is not a speed dating event. I have been to a few in my career and I can honestly say that I’ve had a 40% success rate. By this I mean, they contacted me… instead of me contacting them. Also, be sensitive to the fact that the conversation is two-way. Don’t always think about yourself. I want to keep this conversation going as long as I can because this person is a potential client, or potential employer, or he is really cute! Blah, bah, blah…
Remember that the network runs two ways. Maybe the person who you think is a possible contact does not see you as one. It will take some time to listen to conversation cues and decipher body language from someone to know that they are not interested in what you have to offer and that they are ready to move-on. Look out for these signs: looking away at other people, fiddling with the straw of their drink, nodding their head in a regular pattern, long awkward pauses or shifting from side to side, to name a few.
Take the hint, you need to walk away as well. The art of small talk is simply that… it is small, sweet and short. My advice? Keep it under ten minutes. If you see the person again at the event, just smile, don’t chat for long. You have his/her business card right? The next conversation should be an email, especially if this person is someone you really need to connect with again.
And in the spirit of keeping things short I hold out my hand to you and say adieu. ‘Till the next event…