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Question: I’ve recently become painfully aware that I have no networking skills. I’m trying to make connections through my MBA program, but I suck at starting/ending and carrying on conversations with new people. Help? —Lauren
Answer: It’s all in your approach.
It sounds to me as though you’re trying to turn game time into practice time—that is, you seem to be trying to whet your social skills in the very arena that requires this honing in the first place. What you need to do is step out of that ring, stockpile the necessary verbal weapons, and then re-enter poised to kick ass and take names—literally, in your BlackBerry’s contact list.
Before all that, though, you’ll have to practice. Let me offer some suggestions for sharpening the wit, eloquence, and aplomb you just know you have deep down inside.
Practice Speaking Aloud
Ever seen Bugsy, with Warren Beatty? If so, you certainly recall main character Bugsy Siegel’s odd habit of repeating the phrase “Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.” Although he sounded pretty silly doing this, if memory serves the utterance was designed to combine a fairly inclusive array of linguistic variations that, when practiced repetitively, were designed to heighten the speaker’s articulateness. It seems plausible. Then again, Bugsy was kind of a psychopath.
I recommend trying something along those lines, just not ever in public. To spice it up, you can make up your own fun linguistic exercises. Here are a few to get you rolling:
- “Tater tots take time to cook,” told Captain Kirk to eager Spock.
- “It is exceedingly difficult to repeat the words ‘social anxiety disorder’ twenty times quickly.”
- “Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood! Blood!”
Look out, verbal Olympians!
Work on Your Icebreakers
Regardless of topic, broaching a conversation can be tough, particularly if the person you’re addressing possesses any sort of “status.” The key is charm, charm, charm—and a funny or astute one-liner can often increase your chances in such a situation. Given the degree of your current social skills, following are some sample phrases to help you begin ingratiating yourself with your listeners. I’ve also indicated what you might be going for with each.
|“Hi, I’m Lauren.”||Simple, effective.|
|“Excuse me, but you totally look like Gary Sinise. Has anybody ever told you that?”||Complimentary, but this only works with someone who looks like Gary Sinise or maybe Greg Kinnear.|
|“Dude. Have you seen The Matrix? That’s classic cinema right there. Yeah, more Keanu please! Exciting stuff. Woohoo!”||You are attempting to find a common interest. Good tack, using Keanu.|
|“Hi, there! What’s your name? Mine’s Lauren. Not Lorne, like the SNL guy. Did I say it too quickly? I do that sometimes. Sorry. Argh! I fucking suck! Suck! Suck! Suck!”||Playful. Nice comedy reference.|
|“Nice right butt cheek.”||Forward, but with a dash of reserve. Shows you’re confident, conscientious, horny.|
Putting It to the Test: The Three-Step Approach
Once you’ve perfected your skills at opening the lines of communication, you’ll have to work on keeping them open. The 3-Step Approach—which consists of the Laugh, the Compliment, and the Deceit—provides an easy framework and need not necessarily be followed to the letter.
For this exercise, let’s suppose you, Lauren, have managed to gain entrance to a swanky business-networking seminar.
[Choose your best comedic ice-breaker, one that you’re confident with. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, put it to good use.]
Associate Vice President of Finance, Merrill Lynch: You there! Waitress!
You: Yes, hello, Mr. Associate Vice President. Something to drink?
Associate VP: Yes, darling. You’re a lifesaver. I always find these events hopelessly dull. A bit of gin always seems to take the edge off, though, no?
You: Well, you know what they say: I’d rather have … a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy! Ha!
Associate VP: Hahahaaa! Too right, too right!
You: So, sir, I was hoping—
Associate VP: Martini. Chop-chop!
[Your foot is now in the social door. Next, you simply say something extremely flattering about the person you are trying to impress, even if it is entirely untrue. In fact, especially if it is untrue, because they will really, really want to believe it.]
You: Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry to bother you again, but I found your recent mission statement on the current state of Chinese-American trade quite fascinating.
Associate VP: Really? My mission statement? Why, thank you! And you are?
You: My name is Lauren, and actually, I’m currently enrolled in a local MBA program studying—
Associate VP: Ah! Yes, Lauren. I can see that by your nametag now. My mistake. Be a dear and grab me another martini, would you?
[Repeat this action five or six times, changing it up a bit with each version. Soon he will be putty in your hands—i.e. totally faced.]
[Let’s remember something here: You’re in business; ethics are a joke by nature. Do you want to be the tongue-tied introvert who never gets ahead in the field, or the silver-tongued socialite who wiles her way up the ladder, leaving inferior specimens in ruin along the way? I think we both know the answer to that. This is where the Deceit comes in.]
You: Here you are, sir. Another martini.
Associate VP: Ahhhh, Lauren. Lovely, lovely lascivious Laaaauuuureeeeen. What time are you off tonight, my pretty pumpkin? Perhaps we could meet up later at my penthouse for wiiiiine. You can have a look-see at my emissions statement. Hahahaaaa!
You: Sounds awesome! Here’s my email address. [Hand him your card.] Send me directions to your place and I can stop by once I’ve finished up here.
[Watch him take out his BlackBerry, type up his address, and hit send.]
You: I’m going to forward that email to your wife unless you give me a job.
Associate VP: Ha! Do you have any idea what “associate” means? I couldn’t even get you a free Pepsi, let alone a job. You’d need to blackmail the vice president at least, and even then, no guarantees.
You: Thanks for the tip. By the way, do you even care about your marriage?
Associate VP: Merrill Lynch crushed my soul years ago, Lauren.
You: Would you like another martini, sir?
Vice President of Finance: Oh, boy. I’m not so sure. I’ve already had 14.
You: That many? You don’t even seem drunk to me. Anyway, I doubt one more will kill you. Here you go. Say, the CFO seems kind of like a sacred cow around here, untouchable almost. What do you know about him? How’d he claw his way up to where he is today?
VP: I don’t think I should gossip about him. He’s my boss.
You: Here, have a shot of Goldschläger.
VP: Thanks. What were we talking about?
You: Your boss.
VP: He makes me sick! Sure, he’s kept us profitable all these years, but only because he cooks the books like you wouldn’t believe. Also, word has it he’s a closet transvestite. Hey, where you goin’?
You: Hi there. Can I get you a refill?
Chief Financial Officer: No, thank you.
You: Your bra strap is showing.
You [leaning in]: I know things. I know you manipulate the numbers. I know your daughter is failing history. You don’t even know what I know. What I know that you don’t know I know could fill a book. Now listen up: My lips are sealed as long as you secure me a high-ranking job immediately. None of that “associate” crap, either. Corner office. Six figures. Make it happen or I spill the beans.
CFO: OK, OK. No need to be rash, dear. Contact me on LinkedIn and I will give you everything you want.
You: LinkedIn? What’s LinkedIn?
CFO: A wildly popular networking website! Because relationships matter! LinkedIn really makes the whole process of securing connections a lot easier for people with little or no networking skills. It’s fantastic! You’ve never heard of it?
You: Uh, no.
CFO: Wow. Well, I’m not sure who you’re getting your business advice from, but you’ve really been going about this all backwards. Web networking with LinkedIn is a heck of a lot easier than blackmail, not to mention it’s legal.
You: Thanks! I’ll definitely check out LinkedIn!
As you can see, there are multiple roads that will guide you to the top of the social stratosphere. So go out, get some practice, and start cajoling C-level businessmen as soon as possible. And enjoy it while you’re young. Once you get to that upper echelon, it’ll be you who’s fending off bloodthirsty MBA candidates and cross-dressing in your free time.