Preparing for a Networking Meeting (or an Interview)

The following advice adapted from Chapter 3: Professional Networking applies equally to preparing for an interview.

You can prepare for any new networking situation (or interview) by planning and practicing ahead of time. Think through what you will say and practice saying it. When you’ve prepared and rehearsed, your words will sound natural and the conversation will flow. You and the person with whom you are speaking will both feel more comfortable.

Preparation will take time and effort. Don’t wait until you walk in the door to begin preparing. Take an hour with a blank page and put some thought into this work. The investment of time and effort will be rewarded.

The most common question at a networking event is “What do you do?” Many interviews begin with, “Tell me about yourself.” Since you can be reasonably confident that you’ll have to respond to some version of this question, prepare your answer. Write two versions of your answer:

  • short response—a 20-second or less version (approximately 30-40 words depending on your rate of speech).
  • long response—a two-minute version (approximately 200-250 words).

Short Response

The short response of your answer to the question, “What do you do?” should be no more than 20 seconds long. This equates to approximately 30-40 words depending on your rate of speech. Your response to “Tell me about yourself” should be longer. You will want to combine your short and long response. Keep reading. . .

In other books and articles about networking, you may see the term “twenty-second pitch” which is similar to the term I am using here. The idea is similar, but the emphasis is different. If you are pitching or selling in the first 20 seconds you meet someone, then you’ve missed the point of networking and the importance of building a relationship.

The first 20 seconds are critical. Answer the question, “What do you do?” in such a way that you make a memorable impression in the mind of the person to whom you are responding. Your answer should help move the conversation forward.

You might say, “I am a lawyer,” or “I am a graduating senior,” but answers like these don’t move the conversation forward or make it easy for the person to remember you. You reveal little about yourself and miss the opportunity to share how you are different from the one million lawyers or college seniors across the country. You make it difficult for the person you are meeting to respond. “That’s nice,” is about all they can say, or just “oh.” If you’re lucky and the person you are meeting is in the same profession, you might get “me too” as a response. At this point, the conversation is headed off the rails.

Instead, your short version should add some detail, color, or flavor about the type of lawyer, salesperson, or other professional you are. What is your specialty or expertise? Who are your customers/clients? What about your role is unique? Compare these:

“I am a lawyer” vs. “I advise small to medium-sized corporate clients about employment matters.”

“I am a college senior” vs. “I am a college senior and will graduate with a degree in Marine Biology. I am pursuing roles with NGOs and large aquariums.” 

The answers that will enhance the conversation are obvious and they will make you more memorable. This part of your short version answer is the “hook”—the details that prompt one or more follow-up questions or comments in response. Your hook should be intriguing enough that it is memorable, it sparks curiosity and invites further discussion.

With that as guidance, develop your short response by writing several versions of your response. Then continue to refine them. Once you are happy with the words on paper, speak them out loud into a voice recorder. Listen to your recording. Evaluate how it sounds to you. Revise as necessary. Now is also a good time to check the timing, which should be no longer than 20 seconds (ten seconds is better). By now, these words should sound and feel natural to you. If not, find new words.

After you’re satisfied with the results, practice out loud with friends or colleagues. Seek their feedback. Continue to practice until your response sounds natural instead of rehearsed.

TIP: By combining your short and long responses, you have an answer to a classic interview question—“Tell me about yourself.” In an interview situation, you’ll want to expand on your answer and take full advantage of this opportunity to focus on your skills and accomplishments.

Long Response

Since your short response to the question, “What do you do?” is interesting and includes an effective hook, the person to whom you are speaking will likely ask the follow-up question. Remem- ber that the hook you include in your short response should prompt a follow-up question or comment. You will likely be able to anticipate the question or comment that you get in response to your hook; you can prepare and hone your long response.

Sometimes referred to as a two-minute pitch, two-minute commercial, or elevator pitch, your long response is meant to provide additional information about what you do. It shows how the person with whom you are speaking might help you. You want to answer the question for the other person.

Continuing with the examples from above, here is a sample dialogue to consider as you design your own long response.

The lawyer’s short response was:

I advise small to medium-sized corporate clients regarding employment matters.

Here is what the lawyer’s long response might sound like:

Our firm has been established for 50 years and we have more than 150 lawyers in our offices in New York and Connecticut. The firm has several Fortune 500 clients, but we focus on smaller firms that don’t usually maintain in-house counsel with the expertise our firm provides. We specialize in employment law and labor relations. Recently, the three managing partners of our firm were all named to the “Top 100 Lawyer” list.

If you met this lawyer at a networking event, what do you know after listening to his/her short and long responses? First, you know from the lawyer’s short response—“I advise small to medium-sized corporate clients regarding employment matters.”—that the lawyer would welcome an introduction to someone in your network who works for a small to medium-size corporation. From the lawyer’s long response, you also know the specific area of legal expertise—employment law.

Next, you know that a potential client for this lawyer would likely be based in New York or Connecticut since law firms practice within state boundaries. You also know that this law firm is well established—having been around for more than 50 years and, finally, that the managing partners are well regarded in the legal profession.

With this information, you can mentally scan your own professional network and determine if there is someone who might benefit from an introduction to this lawyer. Perhaps your own organization needs this type of expertise or you have a friend who is currently negotiating his own employment contract and needs legal advice. If you can’t think of anyone who might need this law- yer’s services immediately, you could consider an introduction to someone else in your network who might have a direct connection.

Put This Advice Into Action

While this is a highly simplified example, it illustrates how to prepare for a networking event or interview and how you can start the conversation in a productive way.

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