‘Networking’ is a shiver-inducing word in the Stranger Collective office. We’re not against it, honestly, nor do we dislike talking to strangers. What it boils down to, in essence, is an aversion to strategic ‘banter’ – the painful transparency of what everyone in the room is trying to achieve: the sell. It all just seems a little bit unnatural.
We love words and ideas and vehemently believe in the power they have. If someone is genuinely interested, then we can more than happily wax lyrical about what we do for hours. But it’s the initial dive into the daunting territory of after-hours conference drinks that tends to bring on a cold sweat.
Squaring up to the dread that comes along with networking, a couple of us recently challenged each other to a ‘network-off’ at a London-based conference. It didn’t go to plan. I came away with an armful of business-branded confectionery, instead of the business cards I was supposed to be gathering.
This got me thinking about how to approach networking differently – how to get more out of it, how to enjoy it and how to be, well, memorable.
So, for this week’s Feed I decided to explore the dwindling art of conversation. I’m not talking solely about the ulterior motive-laced conversations that occur in the confines of a grey ceiling-tiled room next to an uninviting salmon quiche, but conversation in everyday life: the words that pass between people at bus stops, on pavements and in phone calls.
From the witticisms of Wodehouse, to the bold back-and-forth of Dicken’s discourse; kings and peasants, fish-wives and fanciful gentry. Call me disillusioned but even conversations with the Baldricks of the world used to mean more. More was said, turns of phrase were a little more elegant, language was toyed with, chewed over and used as a form of entertainment, and not just in the realm of literature.
To prove this was the case, I did a bit of digging into some transcripts of dalliances in debauched gin palaces, and I was right. Even the most toothless of crones seemed to be peppering their sentences with a idiom or two, a soupçon of a simile or an allusion to something beyond what was directly in front of them.
Whilst thinking about this dying artform I remembered that gem of a song by the Divine Comedy, and felt it only right to share the wise words:
“Why all the distance in existence,
Join the resistance,
Come on, let’s start by talking tactics,
With pepper-pots and matchsticks,
Here’s how we practice the lost art of conversation,
David Jason, Francis Bacon, Frank Lampard,
It’s gonna take some concentration,
But all the best things do.”
Never a truer word has been sung.
Waiting for a punchline, waiting for information, waiting for anything seems too much of a stretch. We want to know the facts and we want to know them now. And, if you don’t tell us, then we’ll probably Google it anyway. But why exactly has the everyday conversation become such a shabby exercise of patterned and obvious back and forths. “Hi, how are you?” “Fine thanks. You?”, “Yeah fine. How’s work?”, “Yeah good thanks. You?”. You get the gist.
My theories are vast; from 21st century demands for instant information, to class, anti-intellectualism and our growing lack of concentration. It seems we’ve stripped out the excesses of speech, casting aside flourishes of language in favour of the less-is-more approach. Wilde would be turning in his wallpaper-lined grave.
So how do we bring back the beauty of language to the conference room crowd? Well, unfortunately it’s not all about unleashing a flurry of erudite rhetoric à la Oscar (I wish it was), but there are a couple of tricks gleaned from my Feed research that might be of help. A quick glance at the language sparring examples of Dylan Thomas’ mock radio lecture on The Lost Art of Conversation, will provide enough fodder for you to get far more than a branded muffin out of the networking experience, I’m sure.
Start with a hook
Shake the habitual. Instead of igniting conversation with the expected question, like, ‘How are you?’ Why not start with a statement like, ‘Really interesting point they made there about…’ Invite your new networking companion to bring something to the table.
Really listen, not just a casual nod and glazed eye. Don’t chomp at the bit to get your tuppence worth in. Wait and digest what you’re being told, it will inform your next point so that you can relate directly to what they’re talking about.
Craft your responses
This is where a little Wilde can work like a charm. Whilst an informed, articulate response can work wonders, why not also pepper your sentences with a word or two that will spark their attention. Something colourful, evocative and intriguing. You need to make sure that you’ve said something that no one in the room has said before.
Like any good television presenter, do your research before hand. Come to an occasion armed with topics at the ready. By having an opinion you’ll not only appear interested in who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about, but you’ll also probably get to talk for longer and get that all important invitation to reconnect.
Sow a seed, stir a thought and leave a hint of something special hanging in the forefront of your fellow networker’s mind. You want them to mull over what you’ve mentioned , so that when they get back to the office, you’re the first person they want to contact.
And if all of that fails, you’re bound to meet someone else that would rather befriend a plate of sandwiches than network. Good luck out there.