How To Nail Your Networking Skills

Networking: It’s one of those words you’ve probably heard a million times before, and for good reason.

One of the most important steps you can take for yourself and your career is to build up a network of supportive people and mentors. The contacts you make through networking can help you grow immensely both professionally and personally – no matter what industry you’re in.

Simply put, networking is the fuel that accelerates success. Not only is it useful for learning from inspiring people you meet, but it helps you grow your authority within your industry.

Easier said than done, you might say.

What makes it worse is the barrage of advice constantly being thrown our way to ‘just put ourselves out there’ and network, or ‘send that cold email’.  The internet is full of examples of unicorn success stories that started from a cold email to an admired mentor that turned into a job interview. The problem with this is that we’re being told what to do, ie network (I know… thank you, Captain Obvious), but not how to do it.

'Just send that cold email - but how?' (Image: Getty Images)

This has sent us all of into having the some of the most awkward networking encounters yet. I’ve got my fair share of cringe-worthy stories too, like the one time someone tried to tell me they loved a presentation I did months before and wanted to talk about it, right at the same time my now-husband, then-boyfriend, was whispering sweet nothings into my ear. I should also mention it was date night at an intimate wine bar, and so the environment wasn’t quite right either. And yes, I know what you’re thinking and yes, it was awkward. For all of us.

But even in the right environment such as an actual networking event, PD day, gala dinner or friend’s barbecue, being faced with the situation of meeting new people sends the best of us into a spin. Worse still, for some, the thought of wandering around a conference room exchanging insights and polite banter conjures up feelings of instant dread and anxiety.

Starting a conversation with a stranger can be intimidating – especially in a professional networking setting – but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s a trick I use at almost every networking event, and have coached many others to use successfully in breaking the awkward cycle of small talk:

The FORD Technique

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Turn small talk in a productive conversation via the FORD technique.

FORD is an acronym that stands for:

  • Family
  • Occupation
  • Recreation
  • Dreams

Notice how none of those categories involved awkward chats about the weather? That’s because talking about mundane, impersonal stuff is a sure-fire way to end a conversation before you can say “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

Here are some suggestions for applying the FORD method next time you meet someone:

Family:

If there’s one thing we all share in common, it’s having a family. Keep the conversation light if it’s someone you don’t know well, and offer up some info about yourself to get the ball rolling.

Example: “So relieved I managed to get a babysitter last minute so I could come tonight! Do you have any kids?”

Occupation:

This one is a no-brainer for networking, but try to ask meaningful questions rather than having a shallow chat about the industry.

Example: “I heard your team is spearheading XX project. That’s awesome! How’s it progressing?”

RecreatIon:

Many people’s real passions lie in what they like to do for fun – be it cooking, travelling, reading, playing a sport, or crocheting (hey, you never know!)

Example: “The swell is looking like it’s going to be great this weekend – I can’t wait to get out for a surf. What are you up to?”

Dreams:

Aspirations and goals are fun to talk about and are a good opportunity to ask open-ended questions.

Examples: “Have you got any holidays coming up? I’ve been dying to do the Inca Trail in Peru.”

It’s simple: Use the FORD technique the next time you meet someone to avoid those awkward silences. And the plus side of this is, you’re talking about things that are really important to the other person. At best, you’ll end up making a friend or finding a mentor, and at worst, you’ve had an intellectually stimulating and engaging discussion with another person.

'Use the FORD technique to make connections and avoid awkward silences.' (Image: Getty Images)
Take the networking challenge

Look for a professional networking event over the next month where you can test out the FORD method. People at events tend to congregate in ones, twos and threes. Approach someone on their own first so you can get their full attention and put your skills to the test. Have a few talking points of your own in mind so you can help keep the conversation going.

Aim to chat for at least 10 minutes, and when it’s time to move on, grab their business card or contact info so you can keep in touch. Don’t worry if you feel awkward or there’s some silence during the chat – this is normal and will improve with practice.

Take up the challenge - find an event this month, and get your FORD game ready. (Image: Getty Images)

Good luck and happy networking. Bonus points for anyone that reads this and does a ‘FORD’ with me at the next networking event. I’ll be cheering for you.

Shivani Gopal is the founder and CEO of The Remarkable Woman, a movement to break the glass ceiling and close the gender pay gap for women forever. The Remarkable Woman provides women with access to mentors, professional courses and gender pay gap discounts while building a community of empowered women to change the world into a more remarkable place.