Following a recent post about networking, a reader asked, “What’s the best way to introduce yourself at a networking event?” What follows is for business contexts. For social etiquette, I’ll defer to Emily Post (or my late mother, who, while my siblings and I were growing up, we considered one and the same).
How you introduce yourself is determined by your purpose in attending the event.
Let’s first consider the other party. Most people adhere to the traditional networking philosophy (which I hope we’ve dissuaded you from embracing; see "Disengaging from a Dead-End Networking Conversation"), so their purpose is simply to meet people, collect business cards, send a follow-up email, and hope for the best.
As I’ve argued throughout my coaching career, your purpose is to filter the crowd to
identify people who acknowledge experiencing the business problem that triggers demand for your service, and who are willing to discuss that problem with you outside of the event, and
arrange that discussion.
That means your goal is to have short qualifying conversations, tee up subsequent contact with those who qualify, quickly and graciously escape from those who don’t, and hunt for the next Suspect.
When you introduce yourself, say the minimum about yourself, and quickly get the other person talking about herself. This is easier than you might think, since you have a fair amount to go on:
You’re both wearing name tags, so you don’t have to announce your organization
Given their typical format (Surname, Surname, and More Surnames) law firm names are often obvious, and the odds are pretty good that she’ll guess you’re a lawyer, so you don’t have to offer that
You’ve chosen the event because it’s attended by people whose circumstances make them likely to face your demand-triggering problem.
Let’s say you’re a Trade Secrets lawyer, and the problem that triggers demand for you is that of talent moving from one technology company to another, taking with them proprietary information stored in their brains. You know that the biotech industry is exploding and, therefore, faces acute shortages of engineers and salespeople. Companies are constantly recruiting each other’s talent, making it almost a certainty that they’re facing your problem now, or soon will.
A glance at her name tag tells you that Jane Seymour is VP of Sales at Integrated Biometrics. You offer a friendly, “Hi, Jane. Rachel Yates. Nice to meet you.” Because your name tag says you’re a Partner at Surname, Surname, and More Surnames, and fair number of lawyers attend these events, she’s already figured out that you’re probably a lawyer. You immediately begin the qualifying process by asking Jane to talk about her company and herself.
Rachel: “I’m not familiar with Integrated Biometrics, Jane. What kind of business is it?”
Jane: “We’re an early-stage company that manufactures and sells biometric identification systems. You know, those touchpads that read your fingerprints to grant access to secure facilities like research labs, pharma companies, defense installations, and so forth.”
Rachel: “Sounds exciting. I hear that’s really heating up as companies recognize the importance of securing access to sensitive areas of their facilities. I think I read something about a talent war in your business, with lots of poaching back and forth.”
Jane: “You bet. Because this industry is relatively new, there's an acute shortage of experienced engineering and sales talent. Competitors recruit from each other intensively.
Rachel: ““It seems like in hot categories like yours, those people moving between competitors take important knowledge with them.”
Jane: “Absolutely. It’s in their heads, so even if they’re really high-integrity professionals who try to do the right thing, that knowledge has to show up in their future work, if only subconsciously. After all, that’s why our competitor hired them, and why we hire people from them.”
Jane has confirmed that her company faces your demand-triggering problem.
Rachel: “I see this all the time, so I understand. I’m a lawyer who helps tech companies protect their innovations and breakthroughs against the inevitable instances of key talent walking across the street to a competitor. There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are more types of risks than generally recognized. The good news is that there are also more ways to protect the company than most people were aware of.”
Jane: You said there were more types of risks than are generally recognized. What did you mean?
Success! Jane wants to know more. It’s time to offer a short bit of categorical evidence that a solution exists, then make your exit.
Rachel: “Well, the people you recruit have other companies’ secrets in their heads, too, right? And their former employers are watching your progress for signs of their trade secrets appearing in your products and marketing.”
Jane: “I hadn’t thought of that side of it. So, what can an early-stage company like ours do?”
Rachel: “I’m afraid there’s no 30-second answer, but let me just offer that the typical exit interview by HR can actually cause you to forfeit certain rights. But I’ve tied you up long enough. Rather than monopolize your time here or discuss sensitive information in public, does it make sense for us to reconnect by phone sometime over the next few days?”
Graciously, you won’t impose on Jane’s networking time, but you also don't want to get trapped with one person all night, no matter how opportune it might seem. Jane doesn’t really want to get into any detail about sensitive topics in public rooms, so she'll appreciate the suggestion.
Now, all Rachel has to do is arrange a date and time to chat (making sure that she’s initiating the call), and begin hunting for the next Jane.
Why did Rachel delay declaring her value so long?
Because unless Jane acknowledges having the talent-leaving-with-trade-secrets problem and demonstrates that it’s one she must care about, there’s no point. Unless there’s a specific reason to move forward, Jane isn’t likely to remember Rachel or anyone else she meets tonight. How many times have you gotten to your office the next day, looked at the business cards you picked up the night before, and struggled to remember anything about any of those people?
This is the first in a four-part series on networking. Next week: Avoid introduction faux pas
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