So here it is, fellow advisors, planners, agents and reps: the most embarrassing situation I’ve ever experienced when networking (that I know of). Picture this: I’m traveling for business with Jackie, a top executive for a hotel chain with whom I was to co-facilitate a one-day training session with the management team of a hotel property. Now, Jackie and I have absolutely nothing in common.
Zilch. She’s a bit older than I and reminds me of a college professor – she’s conservative in her manner, eloquent and articulate in her delivery, and highly intelligent. Now, this is all fine, but her personality is a bit aloof, so it’s not easy to connect with her.
We decided to break for lunch and found ourselves at a buffet; one of those places where everyone is holding Styrofoam plates, paper cups and plastic utensils. Lunch consisted of grilled chicken, steamed string beans and something orange I couldn’t identify. As Jackie spoke to me, I bit down on a string bean and (you guessed it!) released a stream of water that raced in her direction at warp speed. It’s important to note that while the water didn’t hit her directly in the face, it did, however, take an interesting trajectory and actually grazed the lens of her eye glasses, leaving a line of water that then dripped into her soda.
I tried to play it off as if nothing happened. As you might suspect, Jackie was on to me. She actually went cross-eyed for a moment as she looked at the line of water on her lens. This was now an uncomfortable moment, so my brilliant response was, “So what now?” That was all I could muster. Jackie actually smiled and asked if I would get her another soda, she would wipe her lens clean and we could call it even. Fair enough! The rest of the day went fine; in fact, it ended up being a great day, and a good relationship moving forward. Funny story, right?
Below are some fairly common awkward situations you may encounter in any number of networking scenarios and how you can overcome your anxiety to form effective networks.
How do I introduce myself?
This depends, in large part, on timing. Is the person you’d like to meet in the middle of a conversation? If so, excuse yourself politely and introduce yourself. On the other hand, if the individual appears to be heavily involved in conversation (transactional, personal or technical in nature), offer to return once they are finished speaking with one another. If you’re not interrupting anyone, then simply introduce yourself and ask some engaging questions – questions about them.
With every greeting, start with an assertive handshake: think of it on a scale of one to 10, with one being a floppy fish and 10 being nearly ripping someone’s arm out of its socket. In business situations, you want to shoot for a firm, but not too aggressive, handshake that falls around seven or eight on the scale.
If someone’s alone: Begin with a clear and simple introduction: “Good morning, my name is Michael Goldberg. It’s very nice to meet you.” Then move on to asking questions about them – in fact, you shouldn’t talk about yourself at all. Some questions that I’ll typically use include queries such as:
- What type of work do you do?
- For what company or firm do you work?
- Do you like what you do?
- What is it about your work that you love so much?
- If they’ve attended before, I ask: “What keeps you coming back to the event?” “What other events like this do you attend?” I may also ask questions like, “Do you market your business, and if so, do you have a target market?”
- If they’re a first-timer to the event and I am too, I’ll say, “Oh, great. Maybe we can tackle this together.” I’ll also ask things like, “How did you learn of the event? Did someone refer you? Who is your ideal prospect?” I also like to inquire about what they like to do outside of work for fun.
If I like them, which is roughly about one-third of the people I meet, I’ll ask how I might help them with their business: “Maybe I can be a resource to you after the discussion.” For the two-thirds of people who I (and most people in general) don’t necessarily like, I won’t offer to help.
If it’s a group situation: If I want to introduce myself to a group of people, I first take a general read on the group. I’ll look for the person who might be the most important; these people often can be identified as the one doing most of the talking, the one who is most dynamic, and the person who has the greatest physical presence. I’ll quickly jump in and say, “Excuse me for interrupting, but I just wanted to introduce myself.” Then, just like duck-duck-goose, everyone else in the group will introduce themselves. If it’s a group that appears to be having a serious conversation, I still break in and introduce myself quickly, but I tell them I’ll come back and meet with them when they’re not so busy. They always appreciate the courtesy. Then I can pose many of the same questions I would to someone who’s alone.
How do I introduce others and make a graceful exit?
Apologize for interrupting and introduce whomever it is you’d like them to meet. During the course of your introduction, let them know why you’re facilitating the introduction, and consider highlighting how they might help one another. Finally, offer them time to get to know one another and excuse yourself politely.
What should I do if I forget someone’s name?
Whatever you do, don’t panic. Take comfort in knowing that they probably don’t remember your name either, so just re-introduce yourself (for their benefit) and they will do the same. If they know your name but you cannot recall theirs, simply apologize and ask them to remind you of their name. I will frequently try to inject some levity by reminding them that I’m old and I forget things – oftentimes, they laugh. You’re unlikely to offend anyone, as most people understand how difficult it is to keep track of all the people with whom we come in contact. Believe me, they can relate. If someone does get uppity about you forgetting their name, you probably don’t want to know them anyway.
How do I write on someone’s business card without offending him or her?
A better question might be why should you write on someone’s business card? The answer is simple – so you can follow up with the individual or remember to follow through on promises you make. Just ask permission to write on someone’s card, even though they’re giving it to you. It’s not only a respectful thing to do, but people seem to appreciate that you’re even interested in writing something at all – it can be kind of flattering. A word of caution: Generally speaking, Japanese business professionals, as well as professionals from certain other cultures, may be offended if you write on their card. If you know you may be meeting international professionals, carry some index cards you can use to jot down notes.
How do I excuse myself politely?
Again, it depends on the situation. If you have something to do (e.g., use the bathroom, get a refreshment, chat with someone else, etc.) then simply excuse yourself and feel free to let them know why. If you’re speaking with someone and you’d like to end the conversation, just offer to let him or her go so you don’t keep them from speaking with other people. Just be polite and respectful. Try introducing them to someone of mutual interest. And, if you can request an intro from them to someone at the venue you’d like to meet, it’s a win-win.
Requesting an introduction at networking venues
Getting introductions to others at these events really depends on the relationship. If they’re connected to the event – that is, they’re working the event – introduce yourself and ask for an introduction to someone else. If you already know the individual, do some chit-chat before segueing into something like, “Hey, I know you have a great rapport with Ed, whom I’d love to meet. Would you mind introducing us?” Most people will be delighted to do this for you.
If I don’t know of anyone who knows who I’d like to meet, I’ll find someone near that area and say, “Excuse me, but can I ask you a question? You don’t happen to know so-and-so, do you? Would you mind introducing me to him or her?” Be prepared to do the same thing if and when you can; this opens the door for reciprocation.
Networking organizations in your neighborhood
There are a few types of organizations that can be found just about anywhere that someone looking to get started in networking could look for. Specifically, three distinct types of networking organizations come to mind:
1. Soft-contact groups: Soft-contact groups include things like Chambers of Commerce, alumni groups, or even participating on a board – these are places where there tends to be very little structure. Essentially, you pay your fee and then start networking.
2. Hard-contact networking groups: These groups are very structured and play by the rules. In other words, you must attend weekly meetings where the group’s president calls the meeting to order, goes over housekeeping stuff, and then everyone gets a chance to do a one-minute “commercial” of themselves. Once people know who everyone is and what they’re looking for, then you can get up and network at will. BNI and LeTip, both international, are by far the best hard-contact networking groups.
3. Professional associations: This is my favorite type of networking group. My crack on Chambers is that they lend themselves to generalist populations where you can meet anybody. Associations, on the other hand, are specialist populations – they always represent an industry, product, dynamic, etc. Everyone there has something in common, so you always know what kind of people you’re likely to meet. I love going to financial services events to network!
What do I do if I’ve done something embarrassing or stupid?
There’s stupid and then there’s stupid. If you mispronounce someone’s name, it’s no big deal – you will be corrected anyway. If you accidentally offend someone, breach someone’s confidence, or spit food in someone’s face, a sincere apology and an offer to make it right should suffice. Keep in mind, though, if you do something unethical, breach a trust issue, or act intentionally rude or inconsiderate to someone, an apology alone may not cut it.
What if you just don’t click?
Face it: You just won’t click with everyone. It’s just the way life is. Knowing this, you are less likely to feel awkward about not forming a good connection. Besides, if you feel there is not a good connection, they feel the same way. The opposite is also true. But, the next person you meet might be your soul mate… you never know!
Can you think of awkward moments you’ve experienced or mistakes you have made at a cocktail party or networking event? What would you change if you could? As a financial advisor, it’s important to master these situations so you become more confident about going to networking events off all types and actually making connections. The reality is that there are very few sticky situations that can happen when networking and even socializing from which you can’t get unstuck. And most people (thankfully) have a sense of humor and can almost always relate on some level.
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