Entrepreneur Office Hours - Issue #179
Every great entrepreneur knows how to work a room
I was hosting a practice networking event for a group of entrepreneurship students. Yes… you read that correctly… “practice networking.” By that I mean I put a group of 50-ish students into a room together and ran them through a “speed networking” exercise. It involved randomly pairing people, forcing them to meet each other for five minutes, then stopping all conversations and assigning new partners. We did that for an hour.
The idea of “practice networking” might seem a bit strange, but it’s important for entrepreneurs. After all, being a good networker is one of the most valuable skills an entrepreneur can have, and very few 20-somethings are good at it. Heck, very few people are good at it. Recognizing this, I like to give my entrepreneurship students opportunities to practice their networking skills while they’re in school so they’re better prepared to schmooze and make deals happen after they graduate.
I’m sharing this activity with all of you here because, unfortunately, I can’t host a networking event for the Entrepreneur Office Hours community. I can, however, encourage all of the people reading this to spend time practicing and honing your networking skills.
Seriously… go to a bar and randomly start talking with as many people as possible. It might feel strange. In fact, I’m certain it’ll feel strange. Don’t worry about it. Better to practice networking and get comfortable in low-stakes situations so you’re more comfortable and better prepared during important networking opportunities.
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Office Hours Q&A
How do I start conversations at networking events?
-A group of Aaron’s students
For a bit of context, I was hosting a practice networking event (“speed networking”) for a group of my entrepreneurship students. After the event ended, I had a handful of them ask for advice about how to start conversations with strangers.
I thought it was an interesting question with an answer worth sharing to all of you.
The first thing to understand about starting conversations with strangers is that it’s uncomfortable for just about everyone. It really is. Even seasoned, networking pros don’t necessarily like it. Personally, I’m decent at starting conversations with strangers, but I don’t enjoy doing it, and that’s OK. We don’t have to love something in order to be good at it.
Step #1 for being able to effectively start conversations with strangers is to separate the act of doing it from the need to enjoy it. In that sense, it’s a lot like doing laundry or cleaning the dishes. Surely you don’t enjoy those kinds of chores, but they have to get done in order to be a functioning human in society. The same is true for networking and starting conversations if you want to be a functional entrepreneur. I’m not trying to convince anyone they should enjoy it. I just want you to appreciate how important the process is to startup success.
Now that you’ve all begrudgingly agreed to do it, let’s talk about the basic logistics for starting conversations with strangers. The key is finding a point of shared connection on which to build a relationship. To understand what I mean, consider what happens when you find yourself in an elevator with a stranger on a cold day. Inevitably, either you or that stranger will say something along the lines of: “It sure is freezing out there.” That kind of statement is a way of breaking the awkward tension in the small, enclosed elevator space by referencing something both people have in common. Sure, they might have different hobbies, religions, or political beliefs, but, no matter who’s in an elevator together, they’re all experiencing the same weather.
In the context of networking with people, you need to do the same thing.
To be clear, you definitely should NOT start a networking conversation by talking about the weather. Doing so is going to feel as awkward as starting a conversation in an elevator, and that’s not going to help you in the context of networking.
Instead, I suggest starting networking conversations with something specific to why you’re both in the same general vicinity. If, for example, you’re at a startup networking event, clearly you’re both trying to meet people interested in startups, so you might begin with something as simple as, “What kind of startup are you working on?”
The more adventurous among you should consider using humor. Humor is a great way to not only start a conversation, but also establish a friendly informalness that can help move the conversation more quickly toward something valuable. For example, if you’re still at the hypothetical startup networking event I proposed above, you might begin a conversation by saying: “So… are you an investor, entrepreneur, or lawyer? Because, if you’re a lawyer, I’ve already met 10 of your competitors, and you’ve got lots of work to do to convince me you’re better than any of the others.” It’s a humorous way of acknowledging the way lots of lawyers use startup networking events as a way of hunting new business.
For what it’s worth, the same principles I’ve just described work in any type of scenario where you’ll need to initiate a conversation with a stranger. Think, for example, about the stereotype of a guy at a bar using a cheesy pickup line. He’s using humor to initiate a conversation.
Just remember, the specific words don’t matter as much as being willing to take the first step and start talking. Your goal is to find a reason – any reason – to engage someone in conversation. Once you’re talking, you can learn more about the person and move your conversation toward the “important stuff” as quickly (or slowly) as you want.
Got startup questions of your own? Reply to this email with whatever you want to know, and I’ll do my best to answer!