29 Oct How to get through tech-sector networking events alive
Remember the poor guy who got his hand stuck in a crevice and had to cut off his own arm to get free?
This could happen to you, too. You find yourself at a Midwest technology networking event sometimes — locked in a corner in the vice grip of a bad, bad conversation — and start looking around for a limb to lop off in order to free yourself.
It may be that the person you’re speaking with is boring. It may be that she’s self-promoting in a way that makes you want to hurl. It may be that he simply has no conversational skills but politeness keeps you standing there.
It can be tough to extricate yourself from these situations.
Your mom raised you to be polite. Still, life is short. You didn’t pay $20 plus $15 for parking to stand in the corner with the socially challenged person who’s addressing you now. Here are some tips on making your great escape.
Let’s take the situations one by one:
The Pulling-Teeth Networker
You enter the room and spot a man whose badge says “Gary Jones, Saturn Group” and you launch in:
You: “Hi, Gary. What does Saturn Group do?”
Him: “Systems integration.”
You: “Oh really? What sorts of projects?”
Him: “Supply chain.”
You: “No kidding. Who do you do work for?”
Him: “R.R. Donnelly. Kraft.”
You can see this is going nowhere. This is like interviewing your 2-year-old nephew: What’s your name? What’s your doggie’s name? Where is your nose?
It’s not Gary’s fault. He is a techie and doesn’t know how to hold a conversation. (I didn’t say there was a causal relationship there!) Still, you can’t stand here quizzing him in return for two-word replies all night. You have to flee. But how?
You: “That sounds pretty cool, Gary. I’m Jane Hartman. I’m a lawyer with Bartles & Jaymes and I do a lot of intellectual property work. It’s really great to meet you. I hope to see you again.”
Consider it a simple introduction. Don’t push the conversation where it won’t willingly go. Move to the hors d’oeuvres table.
You’d be amazed, by the way. There is a certain kind of person who will recommend your services based on an introduction like the one above. Why would someone do that? At least you talked to him.
Can’t Stop the Faucet
Of course, there is the other extreme. I met a woman at a networking event recently who buttonholed me for 50 minutes – 40 percent of the event’s total event time – to tell me about her difficulty in getting a client to pay on time.
I was truly sympathetic, but honestly, if you like me, call me and we’ll have lunch so I can hear about it then.
This kind of thing happens when a person mistakenly assumes that because you begin a pleasant conversation you want to hear all the details of their work and home lives and begin to do some serious problem solving in real time. It’s not really what networking events are for.
Here’s what you do in that case:
Her: “So like I said, I wanted to call my lawyer, but that’s gonna cost me big bucks and the guy said the check was in the mail (like I haven’t heard that a million times). So I told him: ‘Look, I’ve been working on your stuff for six months and if you think…’”
You: “Sorry to interrupt you, Gloria, but I just had a thought. I’m on a tight schedule tonight because I have to catch a train. Do you want to take my card and see whether a coffee date would make sense in our schedules? I don’t get to Batavia that much, but if you’re ever in the city…”
Her: “OK, well just let me tell you this one thing. So the guy’s sister, I mean I’ve known her since high school…”
You: “I’m so sorry. I have to run!”
And run. Physically run. Run to the bathroom. You can come back. It’s breaking the unstoppable flow of monologue that’s important. Isn’t this rude? It’s really not rude. There are only two possible outcomes.
The boring person thinks nothing of your hasty retreat because she gets it all the time or she thinks it’s bad form on your part and you’ve lost a potential – wait! You’ve lost nothing.
Keep a smile on your face and a half-apologetic look as you retreat and you’ll be fine. It’s all part of your networking training: to learn how to excuse yourself from a going-nowhere interaction.
You Are My Best Friend
The last escape is tough because you feel really sorry. You will meet people at tech networking events who like you – I mean, who like you a lot. I don’t mean romantically. I mean as friends. It’s not appropriate. It’s hasty.
You probably don’t feel the same attraction in reverse, too.
I went to a networking event one time and had a woman ask me to come with her on a visit to her mom in an assisted-living facility. Though that’s touching, that doesn’t mean you should do it.
It’s sad because there may be a real need for social contact. While you may be the friendly sort, you have enough obligations and entanglements already. Real friendship is another story. This is guilt-induced and that’s why it’s a bad thing.
Here’s how to back off from the too-friendly networker:
He: “Say, Sam! How have you been since I saw you?”
You: “Oh yes, Stanley! Didn’t I meet you at the Chicagoland Chamber last year?”
He: “That’s right, Sam. How is your son, the swimmer?”
You: “Oh, just great. Thanks. How are things with you?”
He: “Fantastic. Couldn’t be better. I was thinking: Do you want to catch lunch on Tuesday?”
You: (This is critical.) “What did you want to talk about?”
This is not as mean as it sounds when said the right way. You’re merely quizzical because you barely know this guy. It’s a perfectly reasonable question said in a breezy way.
He: “Oh, I just thought we could get to know each other better.”
You: “I would love to but I almost never take lunch. Our office is insane.”
He: “How about drinks one night then?”
You: “I don’t mean to sound rude but I go to maybe two of these networking things a month and that’s absolutely the time I have for work-related social stuff. Between the job, kids – well, you understand. I’m really glad I ran into you, though.”
Now leave. Exit the interaction. You have to do it immediately to make the point: like ya, saw ya, said hi to ya and see ya. You have absolutely nothing against the gentleman and absolutely no desire to pursue a friendship with him either.
There are other networking escape situations worth mentioning. There is the person who gloms onto you like a date for the evening and wants to be introduced to everyone you know. There is the one who brings over everyone she meets to meet you.
Our Midwest tech environment is filled with interesting characters. Some are more balanced than others. The key to managing successful networking escapes is a pleasant air, a calm demeanor and complete confidence in your ability to waft from interaction to interaction.
It pays you to get good at this. You could waste many an evening (and opportunities to meet a lot more and more interesting people) if you wimp out and stay stuck in that corner.
You may ask: If you’re so snobbish as to only engage in conversation with witty and interesting people, aren’t you discriminating just a bit? Yes, you are.
Networking events carry a certain cost (this could be getting there, circling the block looking for parking or the less-than-wonderful speaker). To my thinking, you owe yourself one thing: the right to only talk at any length to people whose conversation you enjoy. Isn’t that what being a grownup is all about?
Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.