Want to Network Like a Pro? Get Your Story Straight
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Careers May 8, 2017

Want to Net­work Like a Pro? Get Your Sto­ry Straight

You will meet hun­dreds of peo­ple this year. Are you ready?

A networker tells his story as a movie trailer.

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Craig Wortmann

As an exec­u­tive at any rung of the career lad­der, you are going to meet peo­ple — lots of peo­ple. It may be at a con­fer­ence, an event, or social­ly, but regard­less of the con­text, you will have to talk about who you are, what you do, and why oth­ers should care. 

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Like any good busi­nessper­son, you are con­di­tioned to net­work. But are you prepared? 

Accord­ing to Craig Wort­mann, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship at the Kel­logg School and author of the book What’s Your Sto­ry?, con­vinc­ing poten­tial col­leagues that you would be a great col­lab­o­ra­tor and a trust­wor­thy part­ner means get­ting your sto­ry straight. 

Based on more than 20 years of expe­ri­ence in sales and entre­pre­neur­ship, Wort­mann offers tips on how to turn any pro­fes­sion­al sit­u­a­tion into an oppor­tu­ni­ty sim­ply by being pre­pared for net­work­ing conversations. 

Pre­pare Your Movie Trailer

The first ques­tion many peo­ple ask upon meet­ing is: What do you do?” While most of us have answered the ques­tion a mil­lion times, we have not nec­es­sar­i­ly con­sid­ered the valu­able sto­ry­telling real estate the ques­tion provides. 

It’s the most com­mon ques­tion you get asked in your life, peri­od,” says Wort­mann. Yet, many peo­ple nev­er take the time to com­pose the answer to this fun­da­men­tal ques­tion. A clear, con­cise, and com­pelling response helps peo­ple con­nect to you and your moti­va­tions. Why not take an oppor­tu­ni­ty to say some­thing interesting?” 

Instead of sim­ply stat­ing your pro­fes­sion — I’m an accoun­tant” — add a short tag line or pitch. When Wort­mann launched his most recent com­pa­ny, his movie trail­er became, I run a firm called Sales Engine. We help com­pa­nies build and tune their sales engine.” In two sen­tences, he was able to give the name of the com­pa­ny, his posi­tion, and the pur­pose of the business. 

This movie trail­er of you,” as Wort­mann calls it, is a handy tool for ini­tial dis­cus­sions with poten­tial clients or investors. It is help­ful also to tweak your trail­er for dif­fer­ent con­texts. If you are an edu­ca­tion­al con­sul­tant, you may have a social ver­sion — for times you do not want to talk shop — and a slight­ly more nit­ty-grit­ty ver­sion for net­work­ing at an edu­ca­tion conference. 

It’s not real­ly about the length of your response, but its con­text. For exam­ple, the Super­in­ten­dent of Detroit Pub­lic Schools is going to have a dif­fer­ent lev­el of under­stand­ing — and inter­est in — cer­tain details.” 

Tell the Right Sto­ry, at the Right Time, for the Right Reasons

Wort­mann iden­ti­fies four types of sto­ries all busi­ness lead­ers should have on hand: suc­cess sto­ries, fail­ure sto­ries, fun­ny sto­ries, and sto­ries of leg­ends. These tales need to be crisp, he says, and when told at the right time, can show char­ac­ter, reveal your abil­i­ty as a leader, or demon­strate your drive. 

Sto­ry­telling is a dis­ci­pline of cap­tur­ing the sto­ries, dis­till­ing them down to make them good for busi­ness, and then pro­duc­ing them at the right moment,” says Wortmann. 

Sto­ry­telling is a dis­ci­pline of cap­tur­ing the sto­ries, dis­till­ing them down to make them good for busi­ness, and then pro­duc­ing them at the right moment.”

Choos­ing the best sto­ry for a giv­en sit­u­a­tion, how­ev­er, is less intu­itive than it seems. If you are in an inter­view with a poten­tial client, you might tell a sto­ry of fail­ure instead of one of suc­cess. By doing this, you show that you’re hum­ble, that you’re a learn­er, and that you’re good to work with.” 

On the oth­er hand, suc­cess sto­ries may come in handy once you’ve land­ed a client, but while you are still win­ning over their trust. As you are onboard­ing the client, shar­ing how you helped anoth­er client through that same process can rein­force their sense of confidence. 

And oth­er sto­ries have oth­er pur­pos­es. Wort­mann knows a CEO who tells a par­tic­u­lar fun­ny fail­ure” sto­ry to rein­force the impor­tance of ask­ing good ques­tions. The CEO relates how he once spent an entire sum­mer cul­ti­vat­ing a giant, once-in-a-life­time oppor­tu­ni­ty through a con­tact at a glob­al con­sumer-pack­aged-goods com­pa­ny. On their four­teenth phone call, he grew impa­tient. When he final­ly asked his con­tact when her com­pa­ny would be sign­ing the con­tract, she informed him that she was an intern. 

She thanked him for all she had learned that sum­mer,” Wort­mann says. It turned out she wasn’t a prospect at all. She was a col­lege stu­dent. But he nev­er asked her.” 

Gear Up” to Net­work More Effectively

At any net­work­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty, there are like­ly five peo­ple you meet who could help you build your busi­ness,” says Wort­mann. It’s your job to seek them out, give dis­ci­plined answers, and move on if they can’t help you accom­plish your goals.” 

Mov­ing in and out of con­ver­sa­tions effec­tive­ly and effi­cient­ly takes prac­tice and plan­ning. Wort­mann sug­gests envi­sion­ing any con­ver­sa­tion as hav­ing four for­ward gears — and a reverse gear. 

In first gear, make small talk while being pre­pared to reverse course. This can be done by men­tion­ing what a great event it is and that there are a lot of peo­ple you look for­ward to meet­ing. This brief men­tion builds in an exit door” to your conversation. 

In sec­ond gear, exchange infor­ma­tion about what you do — this is the per­fect place to play your movie trailer. 

Shift­ing into third, you give a lit­tle more infor­ma­tion about your work, but be care­ful not to fall into the com­mon trap of talk­ing a lot just because you are famil­iar with the sub­ject. Remem­ber: less is more. 

Fourth gear is where you dig deep­er to deter­mine if the per­son you are talk­ing to is right for your busi­ness, a per­son who can help you, or a per­son you might be able to help. Ask how they think about some of your cen­tral con­cerns. Their answers may show how you could ben­e­fit from work­ing together. 

At any of these points, if you find that the per­son you are talk­ing to is per­fect­ly pleas­ant, but not a fit for your busi­ness, shift into reverse by del­i­cate­ly remind­ing them that you are here to see a lot of peo­ple — the reverse gear you estab­lished ear­li­er — thank­ing them, shak­ing hands, and mov­ing on. 

Peo­ple are hes­i­tant to do that because it makes them feel like they’re being gruff, trans­ac­tion­al, or harsh,” Wort­mann says. I sug­gest it’s the exact oppo­site. It saves every­one time.” 

Ask Unex­pect­ed Questions

There is a lot to learn from ask­ing ques­tions that peo­ple do not expect, ques­tions that get behind someone’s eyes,” as Wort­mann puts it. If you are pre­pared, your ques­tions can get peo­ple to reflect, ana­lyze, and share their true feelings. 

Design ques­tions with an eye on issues and solu­tions that may arise in the future. Ask­ing what three big changes some­one would make this year if they could, for exam­ple, has the poten­tial to show you how much vision the per­son has. 

These ques­tions have to come from your nat­ur­al curios­i­ty,” Wort­mann says. I should authen­ti­cal­ly care how a suc­cess­ful busi­nessper­son would respond to ques­tions such as, What would hap­pen if your com­pa­ny fails? What would it feel like? What would you say to people?’ ”

It helps to keep some things in mind when ask­ing such sub­stan­tial ques­tions, how­ev­er. For one, you need to earn the right to ask. A ques­tion that may make sense fif­teen min­utes into a con­ver­sa­tion — What do you want your life to be like?” — may sound creepy just ten sec­onds in. 

Anoth­er sug­ges­tion? Pref­ace tough ques­tions with a warn­ing along the lines of, Let me ask you a big­ger-pic­ture ques­tion…” or This may be a bit off-vec­tor, but….” These sig­nal to peo­ple that a big ques­tion is com­ing, soft­en­ing the blow. 

Final­ly, keep in mind that some of your ques­tions may land flat. After all, not every­one expects to be chal­lenged by some­one they have just met. But, says Wort­mann, that’s okay. 

Take risks. This is so much bet­ter than being Mr. Vanil­la at a net­work­ing event.” 

Featured Faculty

Craig Wortmann

Clinical Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

About the Writer

Susan Cosier is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago.

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