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.

Why does “networking” get a bad rap?

Some people have a negative reaction to the idea of networking. Others avoid networking opportunities because they are uncomfortable or fearful. If the prospect of networking makes you uneasy, you have the wrong idea of what networking is about.

At a networking event, you may have seen someone grabbing as many business cards as possible while stuffing their card into your hand. Maybe you met someone who talked endlessly about himself or herself while never pausing to allow others to introduce themselves. You may have experienced the pushy follow-up, where someone you didn’t want to meet is calling you to sell you something you don’t want to buy.

Hopefully, this is not your approach to networking. If it is, immediately stop! You are contributing to the impression that “networking” is a bad word. No one would blame you for being turned o by such behavior. But that is not networking. It is just annoying. Unless a networking group or event is specifically designed for people to sell or pitch each other, such behavior is simply not appropriate in a professional networking situation.

“Networking” is not a bad word, but there are many bad networkers. ey are not bad people, but they have never learned the correct way to network. ey have not applied the “golden rule of networking.”

Networking = Building Professional Relationships

Successful professionals understand that networking is really about building relationships with other people. Although these relationships are professional in nature they are similar to the relationships in your personal life.

Your professional relationships need to be nurtured. Both people need to recognize the bene ts of their relationship and contribute to it. Have you ever had a friend or family member who seems to only take from your relationship, but doesn’t contribute? Relationships are not in balance at all times, but there must be some degree of equality over the long term or else it is not sustainable. is is as true for professional relationships as it is with personal relationships.

Networking hint. . . location matters.

Where you stand in the room at a networking event can change the outcome for you. e two most important locations are the registration table and the beverage table.

If the event you’re attending has a registration table, this is where it all begins. Say hello to the person behind you in line. Linger after you’ve registered and received your nametag. is is a great place to strike up a conversation as people first arrive. Examine the nametags for people you’d like to meet and ask the organizers to introduce you when the person arrives.

e other key location is the beverage table. Depending on the event, it could be co ee or cocktails. People will often linger after getting a beverage, which is an ideal time to start a conversation. When it is your turn to order a drink from the bartender, turn and o er to get something for the person behind you in line. I’ve found this location much more e effective than a food table. Once people have food on their plate, they are less inclined to pause for a conversation.

Networking Hint. . . meet the organizer.

In the last post, we highlighted one benefit of arriving at a networking event early. Another benefit is that you increase the chances of meeting the person who organized or is hosting the event. is is a good person to know. If you are new to the particular group or event, you can mention this to the host and ask to be introduced to specific people. For example, you might say: “I am an accountant and would be very interested in meeting small business owners.” Or, “I am trying to meet someone who works with XYZ Company. Do you know if anyone from that company will be at this event?”

Remember, the key to networking is helping other people. If you ask for an introduction, it is important to o er your assistance. You may say, “As an accountant, I am able to refer people to nancial advisors, so if there is anyone here who is looking for a nancial advisor, I would be happy to make the introduction.” Or say, “As an accountant, I o er a free 30-minute consultation to non-pro t rms on how to run their bookkeeping. If there are any nonpro t organizations represented at this event, I would be happy to speak with them.” By doing this, you have also helped the organizer create a win-win-win situation for others attending.

Also, if you meet one of the event’s organizers, volunteer to help plan the next networking event or spread the word through a social media campaign. By helping to plan an event, you’ll naturally meet other people and build your network at the same time.

Networking Hint. . . arrive early

If you’re attending an event at which you don’t know many people, arrive early. Unlike being fashionably late to a social function, arriving early at a networking event makes it easier to become part of the party instead of feeling like you’ve arrived at a party that has started without you.

At the Networking Event – You’re On!

For people nervous about networking, showing up to a networking event may be the biggest hurdle of all. I hope that by preparing for that inevitable question, “What do you do?” you feel more con dent and less anxious. If not, spend more time practicing and rehearsing your short and long responses. Practice your dialogue with an iPhone, voice recording app, video recorder, or a friend.

The moment has arrived. You are attending a networking event or will be in a situation where you know networking will occur.

Examples of networking conversations

These are highly simplified examples, but they do emphasize several key points. First, in my experience, 99 percent of networking situations begin with ”What do you do?” You will be ready to answer effectively if you’ve prepared and practiced a short response that includes a hook and you have a well thought out long response. Is your hook eliciting the follow-up question or comment you intend? If not, consider changing it. It’s impossible to predict with certainty how people will respond, but being prepared will enable you to modify your answers as necessary.

Second, because you are prepared for the opening part of the networking conversation, the rest will probably flow smoothly. The result: better outcomes in relationship building. There is a lot more to establishing and maintaining a professional network than an introductory conversation. Of course, your responses will change as your career develops. Your responses also may vary with your goals for a particular networking situation.

Third, professional networking is not about a transaction (get- ting a job, making a sale, acquiring a client, investor, etc.). Instead, it is about building a mutually beneficial relationship in which the mutual bene t accrues over time. e examples here focus only on one side of the conversation. Your preparation and approach to the networking conversation might help guide the person to whom you are speaking if they are less well prepared or less comfortable.

Finally, always enter a networking event or situation with the mindset of what you can do to help someone else. As you are looking for these opportunities, you can help others help you by clearly describing what you do and whom you’d like to meet.

LinkedIn is a tool for networking

LinkedIn is a tool for networking, but not a substitute. It allows you to stay informed about what your network is doing and easily contribute leads, information, support, and other information. Don’t confusion social media tools with building a genuine, professional relationship with another person.

Where to find networking opportunities

There are formal networking groups and informal networking opportunities all around. Most people can identify three to five convenient opportunities without much effort. A networking opportunity isn’t always labeled as such. Informal networking can happen anywhere. Here are a few suggestions for formal and informal networking opportunities:

  • Your own company or organization
  • Trade and professional organizatoins
  • Your alumni association
  • Your hobbies or interests
  • Local business and civic groups
  • Professional networking organizations
  • or start your own. . .