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On the Clock: Speed Networking

At CWIP’s October event, Julie Paradise, president of Communication Strategies Company, aimed to “take the work out of networking.” Paradise debunked networking myths, explored networking methodology, and provided action steps to make the process more effective and enjoyable. CWIP members and guests benefited from networking practice in a safe environment of their peers.

Paradise started the session by sharing an overview of the history of networking, starting with 1980s Chicago. In the traditional networking of that decade, people stood in a circle, drinking “really bad Chablis,” and passed their business cards along at the sound of a bell. This rote, inefficient mixing did little to further the careers of its participants.

In the 1990s, networking took a turn for the better, becoming more refined and, therefore, more beneficial. Events became streamlined, targeting specific professions. A proliferation of events geared toward women sprang up, and with good cause: more women than men were starting businesses in the early '90s, according to a study by NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners, of which Paradise was president at the time.

The new millennium brought exciting changes with the advent of online networking sites. In a marriage of technology and business development, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook offered opportunities at a click. LinkedIn became the face of business networking, and continues to be so. “If you’re not on LinkedIn, I want you to go home tonight and go on it,” advised Paradise, saying that the free, easy-to-use site works. Paradise also encouraged everyone to think of ways to integrate online and traditional face-to-face networking.

Networking Myths and Truths

Paradise turned to the myths about networking, exploring three common misconceptions.

Networking myth #1: In order to be good at networking, you have to be an extrovert and really outgoing.
The truth: While some extroverts are good at networking, people with big personalities can be overpowering. Quiet, thoughtful people can be great because one of the key components of networking is listening. A listener can zero in on a key connection that can be the cornerstone of a successful relationship.

Networking myth #2: Networking is all about talking. Just keep talking and you’ll be fine!
The truth: Although many networking events are loaded with chatter, once again, successful networking comes down to listening, keeping an ear out for that crucial connection—or the lack thereof. That brought Paradise to the third myth…

Networking myth #3: Every person you meet at a networking event is worth a follow-up.
The truth: Some people you meet are just people you meet, and the relationship will end there. Thinking “How many cards can I collect; how many LinkedIn connections can I make?” is not a good approach to networking. It isn’t about numbers; it’s about meaningful connections.

How to Be an Effective Networker

A first impression carries more weight than subsequent interactions, Paradise said, citing Malcolm Gladwell. She suggested that the audience consult Gladwell’s Blink (2007) for more about that all-important first impression. Of a first impression:
• 60 percent is nonverbal communication (eye contact, posture, presence);
• 30 percent is your voice (rate and rhythm, accent: the delivery);
• 10 percent is actually what you say.
These numbers illustrate a key truth: delivery trumps content. People size you up on how you deliver your content. Your voice, eye contact, body language, posture, apparel, and confidence level are what make up the bulk of a first impression.

What to Say and How to Listen

Paradise shared the foundational philosophies of effective networking:
• Think about what kind of an impression you make. Be intentional. Be in the moment. Have a singular focus on the person with whom you’re talking.
• When creating your content, prepare talking points, not a narrative. Give sound bites, not the story of your life.
• Use active listening, and be engaged. Focus on really listening, not just to be polite but to hear that special something that connects the two of you. And again, remember that if you’re talking all the time, you’re not listening.

Exit Strategies in Dead-End Conversations

What should you do when the conversation is at a dead end and you need to get out but your partner doesn’t get the hint? Do not use the classic, “I have to use the washroom.” Instead, try one of these exit strategies:
1. Build a wedge. Bring your expired connection to another group with a smooth transition (“Hey, I know someone over there; let’s go meet her”), connect your partner with the group, and then excuse yourself.
2. Use your business card as a closing statement. Don’t exchange your card right away; use it strategically. Collect with purpose—and in a pinch, use your card as closure to get out of a dead-end conversation.

More Advice for Smooth Social Sailing

How can you enter a group that’s already talking? Paradise suggests that you simply ask, “May I join your group?” And if you’re already part of a chatty group and encounter someone seeking to join, be nice. Physically broaden your circle to let her in, and be welcoming with your body language.

Don’t feel guilty if you’re an early careerist and feel that you can’t reciprocate the help your mentors give you. You may be able to help in the future by paying it forward and mentoring someone else.

What makes a great introduction? Don’t say, “Hi, I’m a [fill in an occupation].” Say what you do. What service do you provide? Go beyond the title and zero in on the meaning. Start with a statement like, “I help families with succession planning” and then work in, “I’m an attorney.”

Follow-up is time consuming but essential. Be vigilant about making it happen. The longer you wait, the fainter other people’s impressions of you will be. Carve out the time to reach out to your top three or four connections the next day, and connect within 48 hours in any relationship where an outcome is needed.

Real-World Practice and Lessons from the Q&A

After the dynamic crash course, the networking began. CWIPers and guests were instructed to find someone they didn’t know and to start talking, moving on at the bell that rang every five minutes. However, participants were urged to keep it organic: if the momentum remained, pairs could keep talking. The room buzzed with conversation. Everyone practiced their new skills and (strategically) exchanged business cards until it came time for the Q&A and wrap-up. Participants’ insightful questions yielded many helpful takeaways:
• If you get nervous before networking, take the time to physically prepare. Do deep yoga breaths before you arrive, and use positive self-talk for 30 minutes leading up to the meeting.
• Are you shy? So are many others! If you take the initiative and introduce yourself, you can be a shy person’s hero.
• Stumped? Ask your networking partner a question. People love to talk about themselves, and questions are great icebreakers. One smart query, shared by attendee Katie Hawkey of Astek: “What projects are you working on?”
• Many networking techniques apply to job interviews. The aim is to build a bridge between what you do and what the person you’re talking to does. But remember, networking does not equal a job interview. Be enthusiastic, but don’t smother people by commandeering the conversation into an interview.
• When on a (real) interview, bring a portfolio or other visuals. And just like networking requires listening for a real connection, being a good interviewee requires caring about the company and connecting the dots between your skills and their needs.
• To link or not to link with people you meet once? While the quality of a connection generally breeds more success than the quantity of people connected with, Paradise cautioned that sometimes what matters with a potential LinkedIn connection is the network to which you’ll receive access. Again, integrating the digital and physical worlds is the key: rather than using the “Get introduced through a connection” feature on the site itself to meet your potentially helpful new contact, call the connection you share and ask if you may use her name when contacting the prospect. Your LinkedIn connection may offer to call the prospect on your behalf. The human touch can set you apart.
• What about the all-important handshake? Three pumps is the magical number, says Paradise.
• One handy tip to avoid the awkwardness of manipulating business card cases: wear something with pockets.
• What should you do with people you meet outside the context of business or networking who nonetheless could be promising connections? Tread carefully. Don’t be too intense, and don’t give a pitch. Think about what you can offer the other person, and remember that building relationships can take time.
• How can you stand out in a group of people who all do the same thing you do (for example, if you’re one of 30 editors at a CWIP event): find ways to differentiate yourself, and collaborate instead of compete; can you become a team?

Paradise ended the informative, lively event by reminding participants to be nice to others in business dealings.

Samantha Raue Hebert works for Health Administration Press in Chicago. She can be reached at samwordschicago@gmail.com.

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