Co-authored by Kristyn Emmer, Career Communities Coordinator at Colorado State University & Founder, Awkward 20-Something and Surviving It.
On the second page of the conference booklet, wedged awkwardly between dinner and the evening keynote, I saw it: "Networking Social."
With a few hours to kill, I rehearsed the awkward traditional networking pick-up lines.
"Hi, what do you do?"
"Hi, where do you work?"
"Hi, where are you from?"
"Hi, do you have LinkedIn?"
Unfortunately for me, time didn't stop that day. I had my business cards ready to draw and stepped into the stuffy, windowless hotel ballroom filled with awkwardly high round tables with no chairs.
I got some chicken wings on the impractically tiny appetizer plate and walked around in a circle for about five minutes. Then it hit me. Everyone was already in a conversation. When I couldn't find a conversation entry point, I pretended to go back through the buffet line, buying precious planning time. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw it: An opening at a little round table. I walked over to the table and...
Everyone left - at once! Not knowing where to turn next, I panicked and scurried back up to my hotel room, slammed the door and breathed a sigh of relief. I was safe.
Let's face it, traditional networking is terribly awkward. But we don't think it has to be.
Shifting your thinking about networking as less of a sterile artificial means-to-an-end and more as a meaningful, human, and social activity can help you become an authentic networker - and maybe actually like it.
Here are some research-backed ways to network without being super awkward and stand out in a crowd while doing it.
1. Stop Asking "What" Questions
We are a what-obsessed society. And for good scientific reason - our brains are wired to better access and interpret facts and data than discuss and verbalize complex emotions. This is why we like resumes and business cards so much. They are easy to interpret and easy on our brains.
But when we're networking, we're trying to help people make decisions about us. And research has found that we don't make decisions based on facts, we make decisions based on emotion.
A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made this discovery while studying people with damaged emotional centers of the brain. The subjects, beyond not being able to feel emotions, seemed normal except for one commonality: They all could not make a decision. He found that at the point of a decision, emotion came in to play as the most important marker to determine the outcome.
Now think about how we are taught to network. We are crazy about personal statistics - which trigger almost no emotion.
Starting to delete "what" questions from your networking vocabulary can do wonders in becoming an authentic networker. Asking "Why?" expands our minds and taps into emotions.
Starting to ask questions like "Why do you believe in your company?" "Why do you do what you do?" Or "Why do you hire the people you do?" can be powerful.
"Why" questions tap into peoples' emotions - the same emotions that will inevitably make the decision whether to continue the networking relationship with you or not.
2. Stop Pretending and Start "Being"
Many people approach networking with walls up and fears running rampant, so they end up walking into a room for food and then walking out. This is exactly what it looks like to pretend, or to act the part of a professional networker. You walk into the room and feel like an imposter, like someone is going to find out all of the parts of your life that make you the most uncomfortable. So, we often bail.
Improvisation work offers us some amazing insights when it comes to the world of networking. Much of the fear we all carry about networking is about the unknown. "What's going to happen if I don't know the answer to the question?" or "what do I do if the conversation switches to a topic I have no knowledge about?"
We have an incredible and often suffocating need for control over our answers to these types of questions, but research suggests that when we allow our brains to be free to try and make mistakes in the moment, we actually become more creative and more compelling. And who wouldn't like that?
The first rule of improv work offers us a good deal of practical wisdom:
"Say yes, and..."
When someone asks you a question to which you have no answer for, simply take in the question, say yes to it, take a moment to think, and give it your best shot. Saying "yes, and..." allows you to be open to the conversation rather than keeping your tight grip on it.
3. Be a Giver, Not a Taker
Traditional networking encourages people to be what Wharton School management scholar Adam Grant describes as "takers," or people who approach networking based on the prevailing notion of taking as much value as possible from a relationship.
But research actually suggests that "givers" - or those having a prevailing, authentic desire to help others with no expectations of reward cultivate more powerful networks. Why? Grant found it's because that when givers form networks, "...they expand the pie so that everyone can get a larger slice."
In fact, research found that when a person in a network is a selfless giver, it can be contagious. Giving behavior prompts more giving behavior - which ultimately benefits everyone in the network.
So instead of starting with, "Do you have any job openings?" you could start with, "Is there any way I can help you?" Not only might you grow a more powerful network, but research also suggests that giving may make you happier.
4. Be Okay with Being Imperfect
Traditional networking tells us to check our unique, perfectly designed stories at the door, and we find ourselves at the latest networking opportunity feeling like a fraud.
Research has consistently found that we don't help others because they're already perfect. We help others because we can relate to them.
Your story has incredible value in forming connections, and authentic living and networking means consistently being your whole, imperfect self. Showing up with your full story - with all the challenges and opportunities included.
Approaching networking as a means to an end is not a good strategy to achieving your end goal. Seeing networking as an opportunity to learn and to give generously makes the experience foundationally solid and more importantly - authentic.
So ask why, be you, give, and learn to be comfortable with who you are. Your new connections will thank you.