Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

5 small-talk tips for moving beyond ‘What do you do?’ at the holiday party

AGRP December 2, 2015Robert Hay Jr.

Networking: How many people have you met that admit to LIKING networking?

Probably not many. However, in a hypercompetitive community like the government relations, not only do networking events help you with your career, they can be invaluable for building alliances and gaining intelligence about the issues on which your job depends. Much like a shark, the modern day advocacy professional has to keep swimming in the sea of connections.

That doesn’t mean, however, that networking has to be perfunctory or boring. Too often at events, holiday parties and professional mixers, we fall back on the same question: “What do you do?” There’s nothing wrong with learning more about why another person is at an event, but too often the job question is a professional crutch used to kill time and find out how valuable a person is to our professional goals.

There are numerous ways to advance your career at networking events without suffering through the same tedious conversation.

Do a little research before you go: Depending on the type of reception, it may behoove you to do advance work. For example, if you are attending a fundraiser for a member of the House Agriculture Committee, do some research into important agriculture issues. You don’t have to become an expert, but you should know enough about general topics that you could start a conversation with anyone in the room. For example, you could check out articles on the avian flu epidemic or the new trend in organized bike rides to farms. The latter I found by doing a news web search with the term “farming” – so the prep does not have to be too intensive…

Pick a few general topics outside your day job to become conversant in: I am a subscriber to the following magazines (among others): The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, Game Informer, Wired and Food & Wine. Between those five magazines, I have a wealth of general topics that I can link to almost any conversation. When I meet new people at an event, even simple things such as connecting the food or wine to a news story can keep the conversation going and help me learn more about the other person.

Pretend the event is your own: As an admitted introvert, this piece of basic networking advice has been incredibly useful to me. When you are a “guest” at an event, you psychologically take on the role of a person who expects to be entertained and gain value from the event. However, event hosts have a very different role: they try to gauge the interest of every guest and make sure they are enjoying themselves. We see this at every event we attend – that person who strides into the room, shakes everyone’s hand and jokes with everyone in his or her path. Adjusting your mindset from passive to active allows you to approach each opportunity as an active chance to meet new people.

Know thyself: Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Are you a shy extrovert or an engaging introvert? The familiar terms extrovert/introvert actually have very little to do with whether you will be successful in social situations, but rather describe the source of your energy. Once you get a sense of where you enter your comfort zone (loud parties, quiet reading time, one-on-one conversation), you can adjust your pre-event schedule to make sure your day is balanced with the interactions you need to feel comfortable at an event. I always try to set aside quiet time right before a large social event so my “social battery” is charged.

Perfect practice makes perfect: You can’t become good at the art of networking without practicing. So take advantage of events and attend as many as you can. Not only is this useful for expanding your network but it also allows you to constantly practice interacting with people. Who knows – maybe you’ll eventually learn where they work!

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