Networking 101 — the AWF workshop

by Melissa Feineman

Networking events can leave even the most confident women shaking in their Manolos. Being alone in a room full of people you don’t know is intimidating, especially if they already seem to know each other well. Dayton Hughes, of the Advanced Management Training Group, enlightened us at the recent Association for Women in Finance (AWF) workshop held at Morgan Stanley in conjunction with State Street.

According to Hughes, if you find yourself alone at an event, the first item on your agenda should be mentally changing your role from a guest to a hostess. You can achieve this by introducing the organization to someone who may be a new member or visitor. Take the initiative to start a conversation with someone who is standing alone and welcome him or her. This should help to put you both at ease.

The three Vs

The key points to look out for when starting a conver­sation with a new person can be summed up as the three Vs: visual, verbal and vibe. The first cue is visual. When we meet a new person, we automatically form an opinion, even before we have heard them speak. There is something that initially attracts you to someone be­cause of their appearance such as a winning smile or a unique piece of jewelry. Whatever the reason, Hughes suggests going with your gut instinct and initiating a conversation with someone who is visually intriguing to you. According to behavioral scientists, when we first meet someone, we are able to process about 20 seconds of information before we start hankering after the finger food in the corner or mentally preparing our own self-introduction. Therefore, the verbal element of your conversation needs to be condensed into what Hughes coined the ’20-second elevator pitch.’ This should include your name, your company’s name and line of business if it is not well known in addition to your field of work. The most important point to re­member about your elevator pitch is to end with an open-ended question so that you can engage the other person’s interest. Finally, make sure you’re getting a good vibe from the other person.

The importance of the Meishi

If you’re used to doing business in Japan, then this information will come as no surprise to you, but the single most important accessory is not a pashmina scarf or even a Prada handbag, but rather a small stack of meishi, or business cards. The magic number to carry around is between 20 and 30, but Hughes rec­ommends always carrying a spare in your wallet just in case you meet someone you’d really like to keep in touch with after you’ve exhausted your supply. In Japan, the protocol is usually to produce your mei­shi at the beginning of a conversation. Keep in mind, though, that initiating a round of meishi exchanging can also conveniently signal that you are ready to move on. In Japan, you should never write on some­one’s meishi in front of him or her, but Hughes said that after an event, he always makes a few notes to jog his memory about where he met someone and any specific details such as the person’s hometown or the topic of the conversation.

Steer Clear of the Spaghetti

There are few things in this world that are more dif­ficult than attempting to hold a small plate of food, a drink, carry on a conversation, and whip out a meishi at a moment’s notice. What’s more, it’s hard to feel confident delivering your 20-second elevator pitch when you’re worried about having spinach stuck in your teeth. Hughes recommends finding a friend or a contact that you already know, and eating with them. This is your ‘comfort zone’ time, when you can bolster your confidence with a familiar face. This brings us on to the final point, which is ways of gently extricating yourself from a conversation. We’ve all been there — you’re at a networking event and time is limited, but you find yourself stuck in a never-ending conversa­tion. Hughes offers the following pearls of wisdom for how to move along from someone who is monopoliz­ing your time. He recommends the brilliantly simple stating the obvious; ‘This is a really great network­ing event. I’m not doing my job. I had better move along.’ Or you could try ‘My goal is to meet a dozen new people tonight. I don’t have much time left.’ And there’s always the clear and simple, ‘Excuse me.’ Just be sure not to say that you’ll be right back — that’s worse than saying ‘I’ll call you’ at the end of a date!

Keep in mind that networking events should be fun, so try to think of it as net ‘playing’ rather than net­working.