There is a very small subset of people who get excited when they look at a meeting agenda and see the dreaded “Network and Cocktails” time slot. Before beginning improv, excited was the last word that came to mind when I thought about networking. My initial response was usually, “I hope I can find a group of people I know to go with” or “I hope something good is happening on Twitter so I can spend the next hour playing on my phone.” Neither of these options helps to make any new connections.
There is a better way to make it through a networking event, and a way that can actually lead to making some new friends or identifying business opportunities. What if networking events could actually be fun? Well, they can be if you embrace some of these general improv techniques that will help you get rid of the anxiety, make new friends, and most importantly, have FUN at your next event!
Enter the Networking Scene:
This is the hardest part, especially when you don’t know anyone at the event, or there is someone in particular you really want to meet. You need to make the first move. Start by engaging someone new with a statement or feeling that can take any direction. Improv is about joining a scene in a way that adds value; no one is going to cue you up for your entrance.
- Point of View: By having a point of view, you add value to the conversation. Enter a conversation by making a statement that will allow you explore a subject. For example, I could enter a conversation and state
- Me: “Wow, this guacamole is actually really good! It almost tastes fresh!
- New friend: “I thought so too.”
- Me: “I think the best guacamole I ever had was at a little taco place in San Diego called Oscars. Have you ever been to San Diego?”
- New Friend: “I have! Actually I grew up in Orange County."
- Me: “How cool! What was your favorite part about California?
Choose a Character to Play:
To be clear, you need to be yourself in order for the networking to be effective. But if you’re simply too uncomfortable to walk up to a group of people, or even a single individual, choose a character! Chose different (real) assets that you want to highlight about yourself to be your focus.
- Body Language: When we take on a new character we also channel their unique and identifiable body language. For example, if I’m in a scene where I’m playing a sad old man, I’ll bow my head, shuffle my feet, and look at the ground. Note, this would NOT be a character I’d recommend embodying when trying to meet new people. Choose a character that is strong, friendly, and approachable! Think of yourself as a celebrity – someone that other people want to talk to and approach. Remember to smile, uncross your arms, and turn your body to face each new person. Remember, never turn your back to your audience!
- Take on a Persona: Let’s say you’re an investment banker. Imagine instead, that you’re the “best investment banker in the Loop”. This might be true, but you need to bring that confidence and carry yourself like you ARE the “best investment banker in the Loop”. This confidence will create all types of new introductions!
Add Value with the Call Back:
Now that you’ve entered into a conversation, here is a great tip to take it even further. In improv, a “call back” is when a character refers to something funny that happened in a previous scene. In networking, a “call back” is anything that helps make a mutually beneficial connection for two people. It’s a great way to add value!
Let’s say you are speaking with someone whose specialty is digital marketing and they are in need of someone in graphic design to help with their website. Turns out, you were chatting with someone earlier at the event who is a graphic designer! This is a perfect opportunity for you to make an introduction. In the end, both will be grateful to you for making the “call back”, and perhaps they’ll return the favor!
If you aren’t able to add value with an immediate “call back,” another improv technique that will help fuel the conversation is to make statements that elicit an emotional reaction. Asking good questions can work in the same way if what you ask the other person allows them to respond passionately and with full emotion. For example, if the person you’re speaking with mentions they have kids, dig into that a bit! Chances are they will be delighted to talk about their kids!
Listen to Understand:
The most common question asked at networking events is “what do you do?” But how many times have you asked that question without actually listening to hear what the other person has said? Most of the time, you’re too busy planning on how you’re going to describe your answer when they ask you the same question.
In improv, there is a skill called listening to understand, rather than our innate habit of listening to respond. The next time someone tells you what he or she does, ask follow-up questions that show you are interested and give the other person an opportunity to share. For example:
- Listen to Understand: “Wow, a microbiologist, how interesting! What part of your job is the most fun?”
- Evoke Emotion: “Tell me about the moment you decided microbiology was a field you wanted to pursue.”
- Listen to Understand & Evoke Emotion: “What is the most exciting project you are working on right now?”
Exit Stage Left
As you can see, networking can be made easier by embracing a few tried and true improv tactics. If you enter each conversation with purpose, add value by making connections, and truly listen to understand, you will be able to work a room like the best of ‘em! We guarantee that if you employ these techniques over time, you’ll gain confidence and see your network, and your business grow!
Chuck Feerick is a graduate of the Second City Improv Program. He performs around Chicago with his Improv group, Roger Bob, as well as in other shows. Professionally, Chuck is a healthcare consultant as well as a certified personal trainer. You can find out more about him at his website or contact him on Twitter!