A Simple Tool to Make Professional Networking 10x More Interesting

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I love meeting new people.

I didn’t always love meeting new people.

I used to dread the idea of going to an event and meeting other people and having to pretend to be interested in them. It struck me as dishonest to them, dishonest to myself, and as a waste of time overall. While I am there pretending to be interested in some guy’s succulent business, I could be at home learning more about my craft or asking for introductions to the people I really do need to know.

Maybe that was because my first professional job was in Washington DC and in DC, everybody swarms to you with thinly-veiled questions about who you know and how you can help them become a staffer to some terrible politician. As soon as you indicate you are not, in fact, part of the ladder they can climb, they move on to some poor other schlub.

So, yes, I didn’t always enjoy meeting new people.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

I posed a question on Twitter yesterday (follow me @zslayback): what’s your least favorite part of professional networking?

Several people answered “Other people.”

Specifically, Jakub Ferencik replied, “being interested in other people,” and admitted that the responsibility to be interested in others falls on his shoulders, not on theirs to prove themselves to him and others. Rather than taking the cynic’s approach that everybody isn’t interesting, he admits that this is his responsibility.

This is the start.

Here’s the thing about networking, especially networking events (which I hate and I will write later about why you should not waste your time at networking events): there’s an invisible script everybody follows when they go about networking. When you meet somebody in the context of “networking,” they expect you to ask certain questions.

  • What do you do?
  • Who do you work for?
  • What do you want to do?
  • Who do you know? (maybe not that bluntly, but that’s really what they’re looking for)

When you go about answering a script long enough, it’s hard to stay interested in the conversation and it’s hard to actually let your personality and history shine through. When I think of two people networking with each other, I think of this scene in Office Space:

Of course you aren’t going to find that person interesting.

Scripts bore people. This is why you don’t go see the same play more than a few times. Once you know the script, you know what’s going to be said.

The same in networking. You know the script and you know the other person is using an internal script (and you are, too!). If they’re a college student, you know the answers will go one way. If they’re a salesman, you know the answers will go another. If they’re an artist, another way.

And on. And on. And on.

The Tool: Break Their Networking Scripts

The easiest way to make somebody else seem interesting (and to make them find you more interesting) in a scripted context is to break the script.

Don’t ask the expected questions. Don’t ask where they went to school, what they majored in, where they work, who they work for, and why they do that. Look for cues for other sincere questions to ask outside of the script (even in my email scripts, I tell people, ask sincere questions! Scripts don’t have to be as scripted as you think). Ask questions they don’t expect you to ask in a networking context.

For me, one of my favorite things to do is to look for indicators of that person’s personality:

  • What are they drinking? Eating?
  • What are they wearing? Anything unique? A lapel pin? A ring? Earrings? Necklace?
  • If you’re in their office or home, what photos do they have on the wall? Do they have children? A spouse?

If you have more knowledge to the context based on who introduced you, you can think about shared experiences you may have from that other person.

I have a good friend who is a graduate of Grove City College, a small, conservative Christian school about 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh. Many of my new friends were introduced to me through him. That gives me new info to go on and a better model of what these people might be like. People who go to that school tend to be devoutly Christian, married at a relatively young age, more likely to know certain authors like CS Lewis and Murray Rothbard, and have an interest in subjects that a graduate from Pitt or CMU might not have.

So that’s more info I can use to break the script.

Everybody knows that scripted conversations are inferior to sincere, spontaneous conversations, so by breaking the script, you light a fire in the person with whom you’re speaking. They’re more likely to open up to you and to show you those parts of themselves that make them interesting.

Would you rather talk about your job or about the poet that got you interested in studying philosophy?

Would you rather talk about your skills or about how you met your significant other?

Would you rather talk about that big promotion you want to go for or how your ideal day will look once you master your craft?

Ask yourself: what would I rather somebody ask me here? And apply that to the other people you meet.

Find other people interesting by breaking their scripts. It turns out, others are just as interesting as you if you let them show that to you.

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