Networking is an essential means of building the relationships and strategic partnerships that lead to long-term business success. That said, for some of us, it isn’t necessarily something we enjoy. In fact, many small business owners consider networking a necessary evil. Others are so nervous about walking into a room where they don’t know anyone that they avoid it altogether.
What if there was a way for you to not just make it through a networking event, but actually have fun meeting new people and identifying business opportunities?
Enter the art of improvisation. There are a number of simple improvisation techniques that can help you overcome anxiety, make new connections, and, yes, even enjoy networking. While born out of comedy, you can use these tools to stay focused, retain information, and genuinely connect with people you meet.
Choose a Character
In an earlier blog on networking basics, we emphasized that being yourself is the key to effective networking. However, if you’re uncomfortable walking up to a group or even a single individual, it’s helpful to think ahead of time about how you’d like to present yourself. Choose one or two key assets to highlight and focus solely on them when you introduce yourself to people. This will help alleviate the common fear of not knowing what to say.
Make the First Move
In improvisation, one player must pick an idea quickly and run with it in order for the scene to start. There is no time for thinking or self-editing. In the same vein, you’ll need to initiate conversations in order to network. The more time you spend thinking about what to say and how to say it, the less likely you are to take any action. If someone looks interesting, make the first move and introduce yourself.
Pay Close Attention
The most common question asked at any networking event is “what do you do?” Yet how many times have you asked that question and failed to listen to what the other person says?
Most of us have committed this communication faux pas because we’re busy planning our response or worrying about something we’ve already said. Meanwhile, the other person is giving us valuable information, but we don’t hear it because we’re in our own heads. In the worst-case scenario, they can tell that you’ve totally tuned them out.
Improvisation is about being fully present in the moment and listening to your partner. On stage or at a networking event, the “scene” can change at any moment. Not paying attention can result in a missed opportunity.
In improvisation there is a skill called “listening to understand.” The next time someone is telling you what he or she does, try not to plan your response while they’re speaking. Instead, listen intently and ask follow-up questions. Give the other person ample opportunity to share, and let them finish. It’s fine if a brilliant response doesn’t immediately come to mind. You’ve already made a positive impression by giving them your full attention, and chances are they will give you theirs in return.
Repeat to Remember
A powerful way to show that you’re truly listening is to restate what the person just said in your own words. When they finish speaking, say something along the lines of, “What I hear you saying is,” and paraphrase their point to make sure you understand.
This mirroring technique is also a great improvisation trick for remembering names. When someone you’ve just met introduces themselves, repeat their full name immediately, and use it again during the conversation.
Don’t Take Yourself Seriously
Much of the anxiety around networking comes from worrying about saying the wrong thing or making a good first impression. However, networking success is defined less by what we have to say and more by how we make others feel.
Improvisation is about supporting the other person, helping them express themselves, and creating a positive experience. You’re in a conversation that can be the foundation for a future business relationship. It’s not a competition or a popularity contest.
If you say something that falls flat, don’t take it too seriously. Acknowledge it, laugh, and try something different. If you’re working too hard at getting it just right, the person you’re talking with will sense that and lose interest. Whether we’re in a business or social environment, it’s far more enjoyable to be in the company of someone who’s upbeat and relaxed.
Improvisation isn’t just about getting laughs. It can provide effective tools for honing critical skills like improving listening and retention and thinking on your feet. It helps facilitate the kind of mutually beneficial conversations that build trust, respect, and, ultimately, relationships. Consider adding a little improvisation during your next networking event. Who knows, you might actually enjoy yourself!
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