The weirdest way to succeed at networking

You don't need to make awkward small talk to succeed at networking, but there are some tips you should know, says MediaCom's chief transformation officer.

Some of us are naturals at networking. Given a lukewarm glass of indifferent white wine and some limp crisps those lucky people circulate at room like honey bees in search of nectar. Two hours later they are the last to leave (undoubtedly to go on to their next fixture) and they have talked to at least a dozen people that they barely know.

Some of us are not naturals. Some of us need help.

My very first abject failure at networking happened when I was put forward for an exclusive club where the candidates were vetted at a cocktail party. My sponsor invited me along, introduced me to a series of very influential people, and then left me alone with them. To a woman they each looked at me, raised their eyebrows, waited expectantly for me to say something impressive, and then swiftly moved on, in disappointment, to the next candidate. I did not make the cut.  

Don’t get me wrong, I was aware that I was meant to make impressive small talk with at least half a dozen different people. I just had absolutely no idea what that consisted of. I still don’t know. 

I don’t think you need to make small talk anymore in order to impress, but here are two things you do need to do. 

1. Do some research. 

That cocktail party was in the dim mists of time before LinkedIn, before Twitter, before Facebook, before the Campaign A List. Now, faced with any prospective encounter with people you don’t know, you can easily look them up and find something to talk to them about. 

It may seem obvious but it’s something that people who ask to meet you rarely do. This is not stalking. This is not intrusive. This is professional preparation. 

If people have shared aspects of their careers, personalities, interests and humour on social media or in Campaign, they are in the public domain and it is just polite to find out something about them in order to make conversation.

Five minutes of preparation about who you think will be at a gathering so that you have something to connect with them about will make a difference.

So if you want to connect with Tess Alps (and who wouldn’t), listen to some Bach. Brushing up against WPP UK country manager Karen Blackett, perhaps show an interest in athletics. 

2. Make your network wide and weird. 

It’s great to be in with the in crowd – to know the latest gossip, and to feel at the centre of a large group of familiar faces. They will be warm to you and useful in your career. But don’t spend all your time with them. Make sure that you make contact with people outside the "usual suspects" – especially people who have only a very random connection to your current day job.

In the first place they might be really intriguing; going outside the norm is fun. In the second place, with the pace of change in our industry you don’t know where your career will take you and building connections outside of the current status is a really beneficial thing. 

Finally, once you have established a relationship with them you’ll be able to ask them about work issues that it is difficult to speak to your current inner circle about because everyone knows everyone. They will give you great, unbiased advice from a remote perspective. That’s very valuable in any situation. 

Doing some homework and going wide and weird: the two essentials of effective networking.

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer of MediaCom

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