If I charted my students along an X axis of “Ability to network” and Y axis of “Number of students,” I would probably get a nice bell curve.  For the most part, my students are still learning to network.  Some are outright terrified of it and know that they aren’t very good at it.  Others may suck as well, but are confident in their extroversion!  Some, at the other end of the spectrum, are legitimately good.  MOST, though, are good enough to get by, but maybe not good enough to be extremely proficient.

This was made apparent by the feedback from my GTAs and a couple of recruiters after the most recent Accounting “Meet the Firms.”  Like other events, because I push students to attend events, more than just the awesome end of the bell curve is getting out there and mixing it up.  As a result, not everyone shined.  That’s ok, that’s why we do this.  You’re here to learn and the best way to do that is try something a few times before it gets real.  For those of you who felt like you struggled, here’s a few networking pointers.  Lonny’s “Three C’s” of networking:

Be Courteous – People get the majority of what you mean through your body language.  This includes things like eye contact and facial expressions as well as your posture and whether you flail your arms around.  In This is Who We Hire my friend Alex Groenendyk says there are two facial expressions you need to master; “at ease” and “communication support.”

When you arrive at an event or sit down with someone you start with “at ease.”  Smile a bit.  Relax your eyebrows.  Look them in the eye.  If you draw a triangle across their eyebrows and down to their chin, you now know where to keep your eyes.  DON’T HALO (looking all around them, but not at them!)  At ease gets the conversation flowing.

Now move to “communication support.”  Smile more, nod.  Raise your eyebrows when you agree.  As the person explains something, tilt your head a bit and focus on what they are saying.  The goal of this look is to encourage the person to keep talking.  If you are networking, you want to be learning so keeping your partner talking is important.

When you talk, use your hands to make a point, but try to keep your elbows in.  Don’t wave above your head or point as a way to exclaim.  Instead keep your hands open and palms up.  It’s a way to show your trustworthiness.  If you are standing, keep your hands out of your pockets or folded in front of you.  These postures will close you off.  And stand up straight!!  I hate a sloucher…

Be Curious – Remember that you network to meet people and learn from them, so learn to ask questions.  You can employ a funnel approach to give your interactions some structure and make sure you don’t monopolize your partner’s time if this is a group setting.

First, ask an Icebreaker.  Something generic to get the conversation flowing.  Do you come to many of these meetings?  Have you heard from other students?  Then ask your first Inquiry.  What kind of work do you do with ____?  How do you like working in _____?  How did you get started working in ______?  Remember to use your “communication support” expressions to encourage your partner.  Information questions are like probes, prodding the speaker to continue or securing additional clarification and understanding.  Use two or three per Inquiry.  Hopefully your partner will make Inquiries of you as well.  Finally, and this is especially important if you are networking at a group event, issue an Invitation to continue the conversation later.  This is really interesting, but I don’t want to monopolize your time; can we continue this conversation again over coffee?  If they accept, have a contact card ready to offer them.  Not because they will call you, but because they will give you theirs in return!  Now YOU are driving the conversation and can follow up to schedule a one-on-one meeting.

The key to being able to pull this off…RESEARCH!  Seriously, you can’t just go to an event and wing it.  If this is a group networking event then find out answers to, who will be there, where do they work, what do those companies look for.  If this is an informational interview then review the person’s LinkedIn profile and prepare sample questions.  At the Accounting “Meet the Firms,” companies want a solid answer to “Where would you like to work?” and “Tax or Audit?”  If you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail!

Be Conscientious – This is probably the one that most students forget.  Not because they are inherently rude, but because this whole networking thing is new to them.  You need to develop social manners in the same way you develop the first two behaviors, through practice!

A good rule of thumb to follow is that any answer you give should be no longer than 30 seconds.  As Alex points out in This is Who we Hire, if you go on much longer than that, people will get bored.  However, if you get verbal or non-verbal encouragement from the person, you may be ok to tack on another 20 second follow up.  But that’s it!  Don’t prattle on about yourself!!  If they ask a closed question, keep it to five seconds.

Spend a bit of time talking to yourself in the mirror so you can judge 30 seconds.  It will start off being much longer than you thought.  But, if you don’t practice it can be over in a heartbeat as you try to fill the void with sound or collect your thoughts while you talk.  This is when having a well-prepared and rehearsed elevator pitch will serve you.  Your elevator pitch not only helps you with an introduction, but gives you themes to go back to as you answer questions.

Also, be aware of your surroundings.  Don’t box people in, or box others out.  It’s like fixing your coffee at the coffee shop.  You don’t want to be that obnoxious person who takes up the entire island while you test your coffee, sipping with each sugar or milk addition!!

Finally, and I can’t say this enough, remember that this is PROFESSIONAL and not social.  Watch your volume and excitement level.  Acknowledge, but don’t monopolize, your friends.  And by all means, if there is a bar…get a club soda and lime.  No one wants to network with Drunky McStupid.

Have fun, be safe, and take care of each other out there!