5 ways to survive the dreaded networking meeting

Determine why you're meeting in the first place, to start

The very mention of a "networking meeting" can bring up the dreaded worry: "What on Earth are we going to talk about?"

But if you ask yourself five questions before the meeting, you won't need to fear those awkward silences and uncomfortable exchanges.

1. What is the purpose of your meeting?

Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist and instructor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, says it is important to clarify your reason for accepting the meeting. You may agree to speak with someone as a favor to a mutual friend, to learn more about that person's area of expertise, or perhaps just to make a friend.

Whatever your reason for networking, identifying the purpose will help guide your conversation, says Clark.

2. Is there a purpose?

If you've pondered the above question and can't seem to come up with an answer, it could mean the meeting is unnecessary to begin with. If this is the case, says Clark, you should not feel obligated to accept.

If you're feeling guilty about declining the meeting, be sure to say no politely. Don't try to come up with an elaborate excuse. You can be vague about your reason for declining—and perhaps you can suggest someone else who might be able to meet instead.

Saying "no" can actually help you, career-wise

3. What's the right venue and length for your meeting?

Depending on your answer to the first question—that is, the reason you're networking in the first place—one venue might be more appropriate than another.

If you're speaking to someone as a favor to your mutual friend, it could be sufficient to talk on the phone for half an hour. But if you're looking to delve into details of their company or expertise, consider a longer call.

If you plan to get to know them personally, Clark suggests choosing an in-person venue. Consider meeting over a sports game, coffee, or meal.

4. Who's in the driver's seat?

It's important to determine who's responsible for driving the conversation, says Clark. If you're attending the meeting as a favor for a mutual friend, it's usually the other person's responsibility to ask you questions. But if you're the one looking to get something out of the connection, you'll need to prepare your own questions ahead of time. If you're interested in the other person's job or company, consider asking about:

  • The hiring process;
  • What a typical day might look like; or
  • Specific projects they've been working on.

5. How will you keep in touch?

Clark argues that networking is most helpful when it becomes a long-term connection, so she recommends that you should approach the conversation with an eye toward planning your next encounter. If you learn of the person's specific interests during the conversation, you can create a follow-up plan based on that knowledge—like inviting a sports fan to the next game, or linking to an article about a topic of mutual interest in a thank you email (Clark, Harvard Business Review, 3/21).

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