MBA Career Advice: Stop Talking About Work at Networking Events

In this weekly series, our friends at MBA Career Coaches will be dispensing invaluable advice to help you actively manage your career. Topics include building your network, learning from mistakes and setbacks, perfecting your written communication, and mastering even the toughest interviews. 

We have this silly idea that when we meet people at networking events we should be talking about work. We are there to forward our career after all, so it stands to reason that the conversation should focus on what outstanding professionals we are, right? Wrong!!! A networking event is not an interview, and you should stop treating it that way.

What matters in making that first connection with someone is whether or not they like you, whether they want to talk to you again, whether they could imagine enjoying coffee or a drink with you after work. Networking events are social more than they are professional. You don’t want people to be impressed by you. You want them to relate to you.

You could call this a common interest or common ground, but it is not simply a surface-level shared passion for, say football, travel, or crime novels. Being relatable is a function of sharing something real about yourself, quite the opposite of what you would say if you were trying to impress someone with your professional accomplishments. Since in general people prefer positive emotions to negative ones, here are some ideas for things to talk about that make you relatable while focusing on the positive.

  1. Something you love. Anything. Do we need to remind you to avoid inappropriate or hot button issues such as sex, politics, or religion? Probably not. But anything else is fair game. Movies, nature, food, magazines, your niece, your trip to Jordan, your favorite laundry detergent, anything that you love to talk about.
  2. Something recent. Vivid details make the discussion more real. So talk about something current. Did you just see an incredible film last week? Talk about that. Enjoyed some Cuban tacos at a new joint on Broadway? Go there. Just got back from a trip to Scandinavia? Use that.
  3. Something you are thinking about. Questioning is relatable. Are you trying to figure something out? Engage others in a dialogue about it. Not sure where to take your mom for her birthday dinner? Ask the person next to you. Struggling to stay motivated to go to the gym at lunch every week? Ask the group what they do. Looking for a great resource on career advancement? Get the advice of the people you are speaking to.

Importantly, do not make the conversation a transaction. Keep the conversation focused here and now. That will give you the best chance to make a genuine connection with the people you meet. You can worry about what you have to offer each other later. That’s what follow up conversations are for!

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