When I started working with Sandler a few years ago, the term “networking” gave me the chills. Although I’ve been involved with the local Chamber of Commerce for more than 10 years now and have attended hundreds of Chamber and other networking events over the lifespan of my career, I have this deep-seated fear of approaching someone I’ve never met before.
A little psychoanalyzing of my fear – I think it’s mostly due to some head trash about other people not being interested in what I do or maybe they’re just not a fit, so I’ll just avoid the conversation altogether and neither of us will have to feel uncomfortable. (I know…I’ve got issues.)
While it may seem overly obvious to some, I learned one simple question from Holly Rhoads, one of the partners at The Ruby Group, that changed everything:
What brings you here today/tonight?
What I’ve discovered is that 1) I’m not the only one who struggles with this same fear, and 2) when you ask someone a non-threatening question like this, people let down their guard and that opens up a great conversation.
And, ever since then, this has become my go-to question whenever I’m standing around waiting for the event to start, or during that awkward time when everyone else at the table is involved in a conversation and I’m sitting quietly next to someone else who’s doing the same, or whenever.
Be Ready for the Same Question
What I’ve also found is that after she tells you why she’s there, about 100 percent of the time it comes right back to you: “So, what about you…why are you here?” Or maybe “What about yourself, what do you do?”
Here’s another thing that I’m not alone in: If someone asks ME a question, I could talk all day. I may dread walking up to someone and starting a conversation; but if someone approaches me first, it’s on!
The lesson I’ve learned is to be ready for the question to come back. If you’re not prepared, you’ll ramble on about anything and everything. Instead, this is the perfect time and place to throw out your 30-second commercial.
It’s certainly morphed over time, but here’s mine:
We mostly work with business owners and marketing VP’s in manufacturing or other B2B industries who are frustrated because their brands are getting lost in a noisy world. We typically see one of two situations - either business is good, but they know it could be better; or they're struggling and just not sure how to rise above the noise and grow their business.
So, my response when someone returns my intro question sounds something like the above and ends with, “I thought I might find some of those folks here, or maybe someone who’s connected with them.” And then it moves on from there.
Overcoming the Fear
When it comes to networking, the key takeaway for me has been that one simple question to overcome my fear. Once I’ve taken that step, it’s my responsibility to have my own story to tell.