How to talk to anyone at a networking event

You get to an event filled with impressive people you normally don’t have the chance to speak with. You’d like to pick their brains and maybe even arrange a coffee meeting to discuss ideas.

The only problem is you’ve never met any of these people before, and you’re terrified of making an awkward first impression.

First of all, lighten up, says master networker Jon Levy, and take comfort in knowing that there are tactics you can use to make your next networking event not only worth your time but enjoyable.

Levy is an independent marketing consultant who has built the Influencers, a network of over 400 notable people who have attended one of his private dinner parties or TED conference-like “Salons” in his sprawling New York apartment.

Levy started building his network without having a high profile or powerful position at a prominent company. He’s developed strategies to meet people like celebrities, executives, and Nobel laureates and begin professional relationships with them.

He breaks down how to start, hold, and end a conversation in a room full of strangers without, hopefully, making a fool of yourself:

Have a topic of conversation ready.

Levy has a topic ready to fill in moments of uncomfortable silence that arise between people who don’t know much about each other. “I always have a story of something I’ve been doing recently or a book that I’ve been reading,” he says.

“Otherwise I hate the ‘interview’ setting, which is what happens when it’s like, ‘So what do you do? I do this. What do you do?’ That’s sharing facts, not insights. It’s not connecting,” he says.

Tell compelling stories and make yourself interesting.

You should strive to be memorable when you’re meeting new people, and the best way to do so is through good storytelling. When you tell a story, make sure it has a clear point and a punchline, whether it’s a takeaway or a joke.

Most people just aren’t interesting in the way they communicate, Levy says. He thinks that Americans, especially, apply their efficient approach at work to how they meet people, talking in boring, direct ways about themselves.

A good way to avoid the so-called “interview” approach is to stop using talking about your job as a crutch. Levy has his dinner guests spend the majority of the evening refraining from discussing any aspect of their occupation, and encourages Salon guests to do the same, so that they can get to know each other personally.

End conversations gracefully.

“I used to be absolutely awful, really awkward, at ending conversations,” Levy says, laughing. “The last moments of a conversation will define how people remember you, so you want to get really good at a solid ending,” instead of being rudely (or strangely) abrupt.

Levy says he always takes an extra beat to make eye contact with the person he’s finished speaking with so that it doesn’t seem as if he’s running away.

Be open.

If you’d like to build relationships with people you admire, you can’t let your ego get in the way, Levy says. It’s a simple fact of life that your personality won’t vibe with everyone else’s, and that may mean you discover a childhood hero doesn’t particularly like you.

Move on, says Levy. Don’t waste your time trying to convince a restrained person that you’re actually great when you could instead be meeting plenty of other interesting people.

“One of the fundamental issues that we face as people is we are acutely aware of the things we tell ourselves to be aware of and then are aware of virtually nothing else,” Levy says. “So we tend to overvalue specific people or experiences. And when you realise the diversity of exceptional human beings out there and opportunities and business deals and everything, you’re going to realise there are a lot more options than you’re giving credit to.”

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