Most people in business welcome and, to some extent, enjoy networking. There are the oft-quoted urban myths, of course, that many of us fear walking into a room full of strangers or would rather climb Everest than talk in front of an audience. The truth is that we often do these things and, while some are better than others at public speaking and emotional intelligence, they are part and parcel of running any sort of a business, particularly in business-to-business settings.
Most of us make continuous efforts to improve at these skills. For those who feel they are forever about to make a faux pas in a public gathering, psychologists have made a discovery that should bring some comfort. The “pratfall effect”, first popularised by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson, shows that displays of weakness and fallibility make us more likeable, providing your core competence is not involved. If you do admit a weakness, you need to have already established a general level of competence.
Aronson’s experiment showed that while successful people who admitted a weakness became more appealing, those who were perceived as incompetent beforehand became less appealing.
One of the hardest parts of networking is entering the room and knowing where to start. One gambit is to head for the drinks table, where many conversations start quite naturally. An alternative is to scan the room and observe the body language of those already present. Groups of people in a tight huddle will be difficult to engage but, if you see two people more casually arranged, it should be more straightforward to strike up a conversation.
Not every conversation is crucial. A few light-hearted remarks can help get you in the right frame of mind and make the event more productive. As you start to enjoy yourself, your brain releases dopamine – the motivator – and serotonin, the happy chemical. Others will then enjoy your company more because you have relaxed and are patently enjoying their company.
“ARE” mnemonic: anchor, reveal and encourage
Paul Russell, co-founder of training company Luxury Academy, teaches a three-pronged approach to networking called ARE, which stands for anchor, reveal and encourage. Find common ground with someone (anchor), reveal something about yourself and then encourage others to talk. Everyone’s favourite subject is themselves.
I was quite shy in my early twenties and was quite nervous about public speaking, social and networking events. However, as an Army Officer, I was forced to confront my anxieties until I became relatively desensitised to my acute self-awareness and emerged as a confident speaker and participant at social gatherings. Though introverts will always feel some trepidation at networking meetings, practice will help them perform better.
You can’t change your personality but you can change your behaviour and your reactions to a given situation. If you are very nervous about networking, the best thing you can do is to do more of it.
Make your aim at an event helping others and making connections. Humans are social animals and we often act together for mutual benefit, even with our competitors. If someone helps us, we feel honour-bound to repay the favour.
Be prepared to admit that you don’t know everything and be open to revealing shortcomings, especially if it implies a strength.
Practise active listening. Showing interest in others makes them feel good and enables us to learn. If you can offer anyone any small gesture of help or information, note it on their business card and follow-up swiftly before their memory of you fades.
ORS (Open, Random, Supportive)
Thomas Power founded one of the first social networks for businesses in 1998, called Ecademy.com. It built a sizable number of users in the UK and was a forerunner to LinkedIn, which was purchased by Microsoft for $28 billion. I made many online and offline contacts through Ecademy which I retain to this day.
Power developed a concept called ORS and the shift that organisations and businesses must make to achieve success online using social media. ORS was a useful concept in recognising the shift from institutional thinking to network thinking online. The shift from institutional thinking to network thinking is marked by the shift from Closed, Selective, Controlling thinking (CSC) to Open, Random, Supportive thinking (ORS).
He observed that organisations operate in a closed, selective and controlling way when directors focus on corporate governance. In institutions, you need to operate discreetly to protect the organisation, be selective about how you communicate and work to a command-and-control model. This is driven by the demands of public policy, shareholders, staff and the law. It’s institutional thinking, or CSC.
On the other hand, ORS thinking is natural for outward-facing activity – sales, marketing, networking offline and online. New ways of behaving in business are a major contribution to disrupting current business models around the world and generating ideas for start-ups. ORS is about being open and accepting everything that comes at us, randomly, unpredictably and serendipitous, and supportive of everyone in your network.
As social beings, we all know the benefits of having a good network of friends and acquaintances. Interestingly, studies have shown the benefits to be more powerful in our secondary networks than those closest to us. That new job offer or business opportunity is more likely to come from a friend-of-a-friend than one of your direct contacts, for example. Of course, being more open can make us feel more vulnerable.
Being vulnerable is often perceived as weakness (particularly in the boardroom). Yet it is this vulnerability that could be a strength. Through vulnerability, people can see us for who we are and begin to trust us. As TED speaker Brené Brown says: “Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage… The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you it’s courage. In me it’s weakness.”
The fear we have of taking an ORS approach is that people will confirm the idea which we may have about ourselves that we are somehow not worthy of connecting with, a fear that we are not loveable. It might seem easier to protect ourselves by being closed, selective and controlling.
The CEO that admits to the failings of their business publicly and sets out how they will change to try and prevent these things occurring again is the one we trust over those that try and cover or hide their mistakes. There are business leaders that support new start-ups and celebrities that talk openly to random fans directly on Twitter. The truth is, in the new world of social media and big data we are already exposed before the world whether we like it or not. We can no longer hide, even if we want to.
The companies that aren’t afraid to make mistakes, ask for feedback, listen to us (no matter how small or seemingly insignificant our questions) are the ones that are thriving and growing. These are the businesses we all want to buy from. These are the companies that millennials are drawn to.