Networking Part 2: Initiating conversation in person

In our last post, Christina talked about academic networking on social media, specifically Twitter. There’s a reason that was her post, not mine: Even though I’ve been following most of her advice and this has improved my Twitter experience, I still feel awkward and out of place on Twitter, and I can’t get myself to create an account under my own name (instead, I’m tweeting as @cogtalestweet).

So today, I’m talking about my cup of tea: Live, in person networking. Specifically, the focus is on how to initiate conversation.

Which networking style suits you best?

Our aim with this little networking series is to emphasize there’s no one-size-fits-all, and that different people might prefer different ways of connecting in Academia. I do think it’s most efficient to be connected on various channels, and I’m all for trying everything out. But I also think it’s important to choose where to invest based on your strengths and preferences.

When I observe Christina on Twitter, for instance, I can feel her pleasure and joy in engaging in conversation. Me, on the other hand, my heartbeat goes up when I press “Tweet”, and I’ve never pressed the “Tweet” button with eyes open – that’s how embarrassed, anxious, and awkward I feel each time.

But when I talk to someone one on one or in a group setting, I am comfortable saying or asking almost anything and I don’t flinch when I’m the center of attention.

That’s why the networking that fits me best is the old classic, talking to people in person. But even though I say it fits me best, that does not mean it has been a breeze for me to become a good networker. Though I genuinely enjoy talking to new people and I’m rarely at a loss for topics, until recently I was very shy about initiating conversation. That’s why being thrown into a conference reception on my own has caused me sweaty hands many times in the past. There’s ways around ending up in such an unstructured situation: For instance, read this post on how to create more structured live networking opportunities. But nevertheless, it is worth being prepared for leveraging less structured networking occasions!

I will first share my account of how I recently overcame my fear of initiating conversation, followed by advice for live-networking in rather unstructured settings.


The backstory

This story is rather trivial. I’m telling it to illustrate that even an insignificant event can transform you from an ok into an expert live networker.

Last August, Mallorca. I ended up being the only driver whilst staying in a hotel on a mountain top. Going anywhere meant an adventure (if you want to get in on the fun – this is one of the mountain routes I took). I saw myself rolling down a cliff into death three times a day. I’m aware there are worse situations in life, but let me just tell you I was terrified every single day of that week.

From Mallorca, I continued to Stockholm for a conference. Returning the rental car at the airport was an incredible relief and must have released a whole army of euphoria-inducing hormones. Completely unfazed by having sat through a budget flight full of drunk Mallorca tourists, immediately after arrival I headed over to a conference reception. I felt on top of the world. While putting a slider on my plate I started talking to the guy next to me. Very interesting person from a speech-related start-up. Introduced me to his wonderful boss the next day, who I met for dinner in SF recently. I ventured on and said Hello to the person next in line for drinks. A postdoc working in Iceland. Turned out he was working in the same project as a good friend from grad school. We sent her a selfie and he introduced me to his research group. And so it went on. I talked to a whole bunch of new people that night. I would never have done that had it not been for my elated mood after having escaped the perils of Mallorca’s mountain roads. But the positive experience I made during this one evening made me lose my fear of initiating conversation in professional contexts. This in turn made it possible for me to use my confidence to more strategically talk to persons of interest.

A typology of live-networking

You could split the space whichever way you’d want, but for me it has been helpful to distinguish two distinct purposes of live-networking in unstructured environments. Let’s call them Deep Connecting  and Specific Connecting.

Deep Connecting

This is like making friends. Or, actually, for me it IS making friends, just friends that happen to work in a field relevant to you. What I mean by deep connecting is making acquaintances on professional events like departmental events or conferences without a specific purpose. It is similar in spirit to what Keith Ferrazzi’s “Never eat alone” means by genuine relationship-building. One example from my life is to talk to the postdoc that happens to sit next to you at a career building event, and then start having lunches and maybe even dinners with her because you genuinely enjoy each other’s company. So many of these seemingly more private connections are mutually paying out on a professional level – be it you can ask for advice in a domain the other person is an expert of, or request to be connected to someone, or get a successful grant proposal (and vice versa, of course). Having a tightly knit and diverse network at your disposal will not only make an unrivaled amount of knowledge and opportunities accessible only one node away from yourself, but also surround you with friendly faces wherever you go.

Specific Connecting

Sometimes, you need to get to know someone specific – for a project, question, or connection. Of course, this should still be genuine and respectful in the sense that you are not planning to turn away the minute you get what you want. But this does not need to be (though of course can develop into) a long-term node in your network. One example reason for specific purpose networking might be a question about a position you’re interested in applying to. It could also be a more general purpose, such as wanting to draw someone’s attention to the fact you’re doing very similar work. Specific purpose networking can be easier to initiate than broadband networking, since the topic to talk about is clear. But you may need to be fast, determined, and smart about catching your person of interest in the right moment. Being good at extending your network in a targeted way can be the fastest way to gather information, open doors, and foster collaboration.

In the next section, I’m offering some advice to strengthen your networking game by type of networking. Note that most advice holds for both types of networking, but for clarity I am grouping advice into the two above-made categories.


How to expand your deep network

If you’re going to an event, be  in “networking mode” – otherwise drop it

People in the startup world often say networking is like flirting, and although I don’t particularly like this comparison, the message I pull from this statement is that to successfully network it helps to show interest in getting to know the other person. Looking interested, alert, and friendly encourages others to start talking to you, or at least to smile back so you can open a conversation.

If you’re not feeling it at all on a particular conference reception night, however, you might want to consider dropping the event. You don’t need to, of course, but it’s important to acknowledge that jumping into a room full of unknown people can be a big stressor. It’s totally acceptable to decide not to expose yourself to it.

Friendliness attracts friendliness

It is often easier to stay in one’s cocoon. Making the first step makes you vulnerable and requires a lot of courage. If you cross someone on the corridor that doesn’t seem to plan on smiling or greeting, it can be hard to take the initiative and greet that person. But smiles often attract smiles, and interest attracts interest. Oftentimes, the other person will be happy if you make the first step in putting yourself out there.

Don’t shy away from small-talky conversation starters

I’ll put a disclaimer that this CAN bring you into awkward situations if the other person is not at all a fan of small talk. But I’d say embrace the potential awkwardness and go ahead. Not every conversation needs a small-talk starter. But I’ve found they can be a great way to casually make contact. And it’s only meant to be a starter, meaning that you should probably stop it after two sentences and go on topic (here a few topics you might want to talk about if you do not want to delve into research). Situations great for small-talk are:

  • You’re standing at the coffee/food table. Oh these salmon sandwiches really look great! I’ll take one as well. – Oh gosh the coffee always goes so fast! – Aren’t these plates really small? They want us to come back for more.
  • You’re at the entrance/exit. Uh it looks cold outside! – Lucky you, you have an umbrella! – It feels good to finally get some fresh air.

How to target your specific network

Have a clear reason to talk to someone

Having a reason to talk makes it much easier to demonstrate why continuing to talk would be interesting for the other person (and vice versa, to see for yourself if your interests are indeed compatible). If you have a very concrete question, this is easy. But even if not, you do not need to have a complete project proposal ready, but should be able to make it clear there’s a common interest for talking. For instance, any of the following would work:

  • I am also working on x/ I am working on y which is related in these ways to your x and it’d be great to connect
  • I have heard your talk/read your paper and I had this thought/question.
  • I have this specific project and I’d really like your input

Know how to not feel declined or out of place

The fear of being declined was my key caveat to becoming a successful live-networker. I won’t deny I don’t feel stupid after smiling at, or even talking to, someone only to find they’re ignoring me or leaving very quickly. And this will probably occasionally happen. But here are my solutions to feel better about such situations.

  • Keep in mind it’s worth it – if you didn’t try you’d miss out on so many valuable contacts.
  • Find the humorous in the situation – think about how you can later tell your friends or colleagues about awkward encounters you’ve had.
  • Know that most of the times you’re not ignored out of a bad intention – people are busy, inattentive, and often themselves awkward conversationalists. Only rarely are you rejected on purpose.

Wrap up when wrapping up seems a good idea

Let’s be honest, just because you’re interested in someone’s research does not mean you’ll become best friends. After you’ve said what you wanted and hopefully gotten the response you wanted, try to avoid too many minutes of awkward small talk and big silence by wrapping up. Quickly summarize and suggest some next steps, such as “I’ll follow up via email” (read here how to write professional emails effectively).

In order to close the conversation, a polite and pleasant greeting should be sufficient. In the past, I’ve felt the urge to find an excuse to leave, either by awkwardly pretending to have spotted someone else or by gulping down my wine to have a legit empty glass (the latter strategy in particular should be exerted with care). Instead, a sentence like “It was a pleasure talking to you. Thanks and have a pleasant evening” is a perfectly polite and adequate way to end a conversation.  


What direct networking has bought me so far

I will describe three networking incidents that have happened during the past months and have led to amazing results. You don’t need to read these – but since I personally always wonder how exactly people approach others, I will narrate them in anecdote form.

Case 1 – The talk that sparked a collaboration

At a conference last November I heard a talk by a UK professor. It included an excellent idea that was more of a side-note in the context of the talk. I knew I (and Christina) would be able to contribute something to make an interesting project out of it. I pondered emailing him about it and maybe arranging a meeting, when a day later I found myself sitting close to him in a conference room. I turned around to introduce myself and my interest in his idea. We talked a bit, and agreed to follow up via email. The next day I emailed him and brought Christina in, and now we’re three virtual meetings in and knee-deep in writing up a registered report.

Case 2 – Informal chat turned collaboration

At a workshop in December, a researcher that now works for a private research institute received a prize for a topic related to what I do. At the workshop reception (where I knew nobody), I wandered around in search of someone to talk to. When I spotted him, I approached him and his conversation partner and introduced myself. At least with this person I knew we had a research topic in common. The next evening after the workshop was over, we went for another round of drinks, talked research and decided to collaborate on a related project. We are several virtual meetings in, have brought in another colleague of his, and are two months away of submitting out project to a special issue.

Case 3 – Approaching a bigger shot

At the same workshop, another professor received a bigger prize. He’s someone who’s work I’ve known and liked for a few years. Since I am working on related issues I really wanted to talk to him, but he was surrounded by other people all the time. Once during a break I spotted him alone at his table (shuffling paper a bit like Justin Trudeau at the G20 summit, although he was probably happy to have a little break). I immediately excused myself from my current conversation, dashed over and introduced myself. We chatted for quite some time and decided his team and the team I’m part of should join forces. We have had a big virtual meeting with people from both teams and have applied for a research grant to collaborate on a larger scale.

This went well, didn’t it? In all these cases, I did need to take a deep breath before initiating the conversation, and I was definitely nervous. But oh am I happy I did take that breath.


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