Many people find attending networking events challenging. Not only do you have to introduce yourself to strangers, but you also know that success starts with the first impression. The innate human desire to impress others, whether on dates or at networking events, is rooted in our evolutionary need to forge bonds and strong connections with our peers. In pre-historic times, being part of a group protected us from threats and predators and was fundamental to our survival. Two millennia later, success in career and social relations is the new definition of survival. We seek professional and social validation from our peers, with networking events now serving as our savannas.
The rationale behind strong and positive impressions may be driven by science, but they can be purposefully delivered using the art of social skills while being your authentic self. Here are some strategies to put to good use when networking:
The microphone technique
A formal setting in which you meet strangers with the intention of making connections is, in fact, a form of public speaking. You may not be on the stage facing your audience, but you are essentially performing the same role. You’re presenting yourself and your ideas while seeking validation and endorsement from others.
An effective way to make a strong first impression with an important group is to use the microphone technique. When introducing yourself to the group, imagine standing on a stage (or on live radio) with a microphone. This mental exercise helps in two ways: first, you are likely to speak in concise sentences with a better selection of words; and second, your voice and cadence will sound more measured. You will be surprised to see how employing this technique purposefully can instantly prime your audience to tune in to what you have to say.
Say my name correctly
Our workplaces and social circles are becoming increasingly diverse. Shifting attitudes towards culture and identity in recent years mean a growing number of people from diverse backgrounds are choosing not to anglicise their names in our predominantly English-language-driven workplaces. People like to hear their names, or at least see peers make an effort to spell or pronounce them correctly. It helps affirm their existence and reinforce their sense of self. Proactively asking a person to help you with the pronunciation of their unfamiliar or challenging name can be the simplest yet most powerful way to show respect and establish a positive association. It’s worth remembering that requesting people to repeat their names is still more polite than asking them for a shorter name or nickname.
Pause for power
What are your most memorable movie scenes or speeches? Would you describe them as powerful and moving? Watch them again, and you will notice that their impact and profundity, in all likelihood, are down to the well-timed pauses in their delivery. Pausing before and after important ideas helps to create emphasis and significance. This not only allows the audience to absorb the message more intently, but it also makes the speaker appear more confident and powerful.
Talk with your hands
An analysis of TED Talks a few years ago revealed that the most viral speakers used an average of nearly 465 hand gestures – the least popular speakers used half as many. Even with the sound off, speeches with more hand gestures received higher scores from test volunteers on trustworthiness and charisma than those with fewer gestures. In other words, what was said was less impactful than how it was said. In another study, researchers found that using hand gestures increased the value of the spoken message by 60%. Combining verbal and non-verbal cues enhances information processing and recall.
When addressing a small group or an audience, allow your hands to complement your spoken communication. Hands indicate intention. Using them purposefully can help establish credibility and trust.
Listen with your eyes
Positive first impressions and interactions do not consist of confident verbal and non-verbal speech alone. Constructive engagement in small groups, like those at networking events, also depends on your ability to listen effectively. At Toastmasters International, we emphasise the need to develop listening skills as much as speaking skills.
To establish a connection with your group, it’s important that you listen not just with your ears but with your eyes too. This means active and attentive visual listening by paying close attention to the person you want to build a rapport with. Making eye contact with them and observing their posture, facial expressions, and body language will help you gain insights into their intentions and emotions. This also reflects authenticity and sincerity on your part.
Use humour and surprise
Incorporating a humorous fact, a surprising statement, or a professional anecdote into your introduction can be a powerful tool to create a positive and memorable impression. Whether new connections lead to immediate opportunities or not, they are likely to remember you as authentic, relatable, and unique. Tennis ace Steffi Graf once opened a conversation with, “I’m Steffi Graf, and my backhand is so fierce it has its own fan club”.
The ubiquity of the phrase on personal growth posters may have reduced it to a cliché, but therein lies the advice that many of us are often afraid to follow. Being yourself can often mean going against the grain, challenging established practices, or speaking your mind even at the risk of alienating others. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician, was ridiculed by his peers in 1847 when he first mooted the idea of washing hands before treating patients to reduce mortality rates. Despite pushback from fellow medics, Semmelweis had the courage of his convictions and continued advocating for his ‘radical hypothesis’ of better hand hygiene, now a cornerstone of modern medical practices.
In the present, being your authentic self and standing up for your values is, thankfully, less punitive and antagonistic. Yet the fear of breaking ranks with prevalent opinions and conventions holds people back from being themselves. We admire mavericks, yet we adhere to conventions for fear of rejection or criticism from peers, colleagues, and family. While being authentic can be a double-edged sword, it can also serve as a highly useful filter to attract the right kind of allies and like-minded professionals.
Networking events can be the perfect place to be your authentic self and champion your true beliefs. Your passion and trustworthiness will be communicated, and this will inspire authentic conversations around new ideas and lead to meaningful connections.
Nishtha Chugh is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs.