The lessons here are generalized from an eight year career in competitive Model UN. You won’t have to know anything about MUN beyond the fact that it involves making friends as fast as humanly possible in a room of one hundred strangers.
Let’s define networking as “making meaningful connections with other people.” We’ll discuss three types: one-on-one, groups, and crowds. Unfortunately, TCP/IP is not covered.
Everyone knows that having commonalities with the person you’re speaking to is helpful for making friends. Before we get to the lesser-known material, I’ll add one piece of advice regarding commonalities: don’t force them.
For example, if someone says:
I like watching horse races.
Then if you’ve never been to a horse race, don’t say:
Wow, I almost went to go see a horse race once with my dad in third grade, but it was raining. Still, sir, I’ve been really interested in the racing of the horse ever since!
A more natural commonality response would be:
I’ve seen horses on a farm but never got to see a race.
This signals to the other person that you were interested enough in horses to visit a physical location (or at least remember the experience after someone else dragged you along). It invites the other person to open up about the different ways horses are raised, the excitement of racing, etc.
You don’t have to mirror someone’s exact interest. Your commonality can be tangential.
Questions & Cold Reads
A monologue is less likely to make a meaningful connection than a dialogue. Monologues most often appear in the form of the other person rambling endlessly. To avoid accidentally giving a monologue, ask questions.
The deeper the question, the stronger the bond you’ll build. People have been asked “where are you from” millions of times. When is the last time you were asked a deep question like “what did it feel like to live in a city for the first time?”
Just don’t get too deep too quickly. Asking about the meaning of life within the first ten minutes of meeting someone will cause them to look at you curiously.
Still, sometimes asking questions doesn’t work to create a dialogue. Have you ever met a person who gives one-word answers and won’t open up no matter what you say? They might be shy, busy, or not think you’re valuable. Here’s one solution: cold reads.
A cold read involves making an observation about someone you’re speaking to without knowing if it’s true. For example:
- “It seems like you care about fashion.”
- “It must have felt awful when they cut off your speech.”
- “It sounds like your work draws inspiration from game theory.”
Cold reads prod the other person to either correct your observation or approve of you for guessing correctly. If the other person starts speaking, encourage them to elaborate.
Suddenly, it’s not a monologue anymore.
Exchange Stories Not Facts
People remember stories. However, many seem to believe networking is collecting a bullet-point list of facts about the person they’re speaking to:
Where are you from?
Where do you work?
Where did you go to school?
You’ll learn a lot more by following up with story prompts:
What was it like growing up there?
How did you pick your job at X?
What made you decide to go to X University?
The more you exchange stories, the more you feel you understand each other. Even after you leave, people remember stories, and people remember the characters in those stories.
You guys are the characters.
The major theme with groups is that the larger they become, the less personal the interactions. At sizes of 8+, things may even degenerate into a public speaking competition — people interrupting each other to make their points.
If people are taking turns dominating the conversation, you can decide whether to fight for your chance to speak or to form a smaller group. I say “fight” because “waiting politely” may take a while. You’ll probably be forced to interrupt the speaker or jump in the nanosecond they stop talking.
If you decide to fight, watching videos of politicians cutting each other off can condition you to the behavior. To keep the good graces of the group while performing this potentially rude action, make sure you’re polite in all other aspects of the conversation.
Once you’re speaking, the main thing that will keep people from interrupting you is telling a good story. If you’re not telling a story but still making compelling points, most people will stop to think before responding. This buys you more time to talk.
Nevertheless, a stubborn few will interrupt even the most compelling points to present their own views. At this time, you can (1) ask nicely that they let you finish or (2) have allies in the group who say they want to hear you finish.
When you’re done, you can become even more popular by inviting someone who hasn’t been heard yet to speak, handing the mic back to the person you cut off, or scanning the group for someone who looks like they’ll explode if they don’t get to say a few words.
However, rather than participating in this public speaking competition, it may be more pleasant to breakdown large groups into smaller ones. With groups smaller than five, one-on-one strategies are more effective. To form a closer-knit squad, have a quiet conversation with the person standing next to you inside the larger group. Or collect a few like-minded people, and form your own circle.
You find yourself in a crowd — hundreds of personalities in a confined space. How can you meet the most interesting people there?
You want to establish some filters; are you looking for someone in a certain industry, a certain age, with a certain hobby, etc?
Then do something politicians call glad-handing: gleefully introducing yourself to a large number of people.
You may find yourself in a long conversation with someone you’re not looking to speak to. Don’t directly tell them they failed your filters; it’s rude. However, feel free to ask if they “know anyone who… [fits X filter].” This can be a neat transition from person to person that skips an awkward exit.
Otherwise, how to exit an unwanted conversation is its own topic. If you’ve been meeting lots of people, you may know someone else in the crowd who your current conversationalist would prefer to speak to. Connecting these individuals can smoothly pave your own exit.
The idea of remembering the name of everyone you shook hands with may be daunting. I’ve had success repeating an individual’s name in my head five times while imagining their face. If you exchanged stories with them, remembering their name will be even easier.
In conclusion, if you’re in a crowd, glad-handing can leave you with an abundance of pleasant acquaintances and one or two gems.
These strategies worked for a socially-awkward high schooler, so they’ll probably work for you.
There’s a delightful proverb, If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Well, reader, where do you want to go?