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.
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.”