Article written by Amantha Imber for Harvard Business Review.
“I love networking and making small talk with strangers,” said no one ever. I, myself, avoid business events and conferences like the plague. (In fact, the only time you’ll see me at an event is if I happen to be speaking at it.)
I hate the feeling of walking into a large conference hall and seeing a sea of strangers. Everyone seems to be having an amazing time, connecting with long-lost friends, whereas I feel like a social pariah. I’m always at a loss as to how I will infiltrate the crowd and find even one single person who might want to talk to me. If I do manage to find that person, I struggle with what to say. How do I keep the conversation going?
I’ve interviewed many experts for my podcast, “How I Work,” and they’ve suggested some very interesting (and practical) ways to get your way around networking. So if, like me and many others out there, you feel awkward about networking, here’s some advice on how to get better at it.
Look for islands.
Marissa King, professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management and author of Social Chemistry, hates networking, yet somewhat ironically, has dedicated more than 15 years to researching social networks. Like me, King despises walking into what can feel like an ocean of strangers. But luckily, some of her research can help us out.
“What we know from research is that people don’t form walls or oceans. They actually tend to clump together in small groups,” King told me. “So really, it’s not an ocean of people, it’s only little islands. Then the question is ‘Now that I know they’re islands and things feel a bit more manageable, what am I going to do next?’ What researchers have found is that people almost always interact in groups of two or dyads. It’s really the most fundamental unit of human interaction.”
Using her research, King has developed a tactic. When she looks at the islands of people before her at a networking event, she tries to spot a group of odd numbers. “It might be three, five, seven — it doesn’t really matter. If there’s an odd number of people, there there’s someone who really isn’t a part of the conversation, and they are likely looking for a conversational partner. And so that’s a very basic strategy that has become critical for me to start to navigate a lot of the social anxiety I feel in these types of situations because it gives me direction.”
Networking doesn’t have to involve meeting new people.
Now that networking often happens virtually, thanks to Covid, King says there is extraordinary power in our existing networks. And arguably, the most impactful thing that most people can do to improve their network is to reinvigorate dormant ties. Dormant ties are people who you might not have seen in two or three years.
Research led by Daniel Levin from Rutgers Business School examined the benefits of reaching out to dormant ties. The researchers asked people to make a list of 10 current connections and 10 people that they haven’t reached out to in two or three years. Participants were then asked to reach out to those people for advice or help with a project. Levin and his colleagues found that dormant ties were extraordinarily powerful in that they provided their connections with more creative ideas, and more surprisingly, the trust within those relationships had endured.
King applied this research to design a ritual that she now does every Friday. “I write down the names of two or three dormant ties. And I reach out to them just to say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you.’ Sometimes, I will have an ask or something I’m hoping to get out of it, like feedback or a question. But mostly, it’s just reconnecting. That, for me, has been both a source of great joy but it’s also been extraordinarily helpful.”
Before starting this ritual, King was hesitant. “I thought ‘Oh my God, isn’t this going to be awkward?’” Turns out, it wasn’t.
“The more you do it, the more you realize that this is actually great. It’s also helpful for me to imagine myself being in the other person’s shoes. So if I imagine I received this email, would I be happy to get it? And the answer is almost always ‘yes.’”
Turn it into a game.
Back in 2019, I attended my second TED conference. If you have never been to “TED proper,” as it is often referred to, imagine a group of 2,000 of the world’s highest-achieving people. And you’ve never met any of them. Intimidating much?
One of the people I connected with and then interviewed was Jerry Dischler, vice president of product management at Google. Being on the introverted side, he was looking for strategies to make meeting 2,000 strangers less intimidating.
Dischler ended up meeting someone at the conference who gave him a great idea. “This person was a self-declared introvert who did not seem introverted at all. I asked him ‘How do you do this?’ And he said, ‘I approach it like a video game, actually.’ So he pretends to be an extraverted character in a video game and he scores points by talking to new people.”
Turning something from being scary into being fun is an effective way to change behavior. Humans are motivated by feeling a sense of progress, and scoring points for meeting strangers is a clear way of achieving this progress.
In addition, the opportunity to score points distracts us from the fear, and at worst, paralysis, that can come with the idea of having to introduce ourselves to people who we have never spoken to before — and in the context of TED who are ridiculously overachieving and very intimidating.
Don’t stress yourself with preparing for small talk.
From the outside, you’d think Kevin Rose is supremely confident. He was an angel investor in Facebook, Twitter, and Square. He founded the social news site Digg and hosts one of the top-ranking podcasts in America, “The Kevin Rose Show.” Yet Rose describes himself as socially awkward. He also hates small talk and has come up with some strategies around how to avoid it.
“I try to find something that is not small talk but is also a mutual kind of interest,” Rose told me. “There’s a bunch of wacky things that I’m into and so when people say, ‘What have you been up to lately?’ or ‘What’s new?’ I could respond with something like how I am trying to inoculate tree trunks to help grow Lion’s Mane mushrooms. And typically, someone responds with, ‘Wow, tell me more.’ Or they will share one of their wacky interests with me. It’s something that is fun to talk about versus just being like, ‘Oh, the weather sucks.’”
Prior to events, Rose will spend time consciously thinking about the various activities he has been engaging in and which might be of interest to the type of people he will be meeting.
Rose also reflects on the types of people he wants to meet, which are typically people who, like himself, are lifelong learners, always exploring new things. He deliberately thinks about questions that will bring this out in someone, such as, “What are you into these days?” and “What are you trying that’s new and exciting?”
Finally, Rose has found that people typically have a book to recommend, which can be another great way to avoid small talk. “I always like to say to people that I’m looking for a new book to read. So I ask them, ‘What’s a book that you’ve read in the last six months that you’re really excited about or you could share with me?’ People typically have something they’re pretty stoked on.” This is also a great way to start a conversation on LinkedIn, for example, and when people respond to your post, you can use it to continue the conversation via messages or even take it offline.
Whether you are attending events in the real world or confined to the virtual realm, networking doesn’t have to be scary or hard. Making just a few small changes can help you overcome your fears and get back out there in no time.