We’ve written a lot about the components of professional networking: actively pursuing new connections, working your network to leverage your career goals, developing an “elevator pitch” … This month we’re going to drill into the process of meeting new people and explain some basic rules of etiquette. What is, for example, the politest way to make an introduction? Do we shake hands anymore? Is it okay to follow up with them later? Emily Post, in her quintessential handbook Etiquette, wrote of introductions: “An automatic and easy familiarity… leaves us free to turn our minds to the more complicated arts of conversation and listening.” We want to set you up for a comfortable first meeting to alleviate nerves or the awkwardness you might experience when trying to build new professional relationships. “Use your best manners” sounds a little school marm-ish, but truthfully, if you are cognizant of protocol and expectations, the people you meet will see you as confident and capable.
Back in the day, you would probably be making the most of your networking connections at a conference or happy hour. But today, many of us are as likely to meet a new contact through a zoom call in our living room as we are at a social event. Let’s go through the different ways you might introduce yourself depending on the space you’re in:
1. Stay away from walls and corners. Work your way to the center of the room because that’s where you’ll meet the most people. And, if you end up in a conversation that you don’t want to be in, being in the middle makes it easier to find an escape route. When someone is droning on and on at you while you’re standing against a wall, you are quite literally stuck. You need to be free to work the room.
- If you’re holding a beverage or a plate of food, try to keep it in your left hand. Keep your right hand free to shake someone else’s or, if shaking feels too unsettling, fist bump or wave. Remember, not everyone has returned to handshaking and there’s a chance some of us never will. If you are a handshaker, watch the body language of the person you’re meeting for the first time. If you don’t notice a flex in their shoulder or if their hand remains tightly at their side, a wave will be sufficient. If you don’t like touching hands, but they put out theirs? You could quickly wave and smile with your eyes. Or maybe nod and keep your arm down at your side. If all else fails, we’ve been through a lot together as a society and you should never feel badly saying, “Sorry, I’m just not comfortable shaking hands.”
- Properly introduce yourself. Have something prepared. A lot of us can’t even remember our favorite movie if asked on the spot. Tell them your title, your main function (in one sentence), and maybe what brought you to this event if the reason isn’t obvious. This is not the time for your elevator pitch, you can go into deeper detail about your work once you’re a bit further into the conversation.
- Facilitate easy introductions for others. If you are speaking to someone of a higher rank and one of your contemporaries comes over to say hello, introduce the lower-ranked person to the higher-ranked person instead of vice versa. And then, say a couple of things about your colleague to get the conversation going for them. Here’s an example dialogue:
“Hello, General Smith, this is my cubemate, Jane Jones Jane came to the agency from an internship at EPA in the city.”
On a screen-
- Take a minute before the meeting to set yourself up for success. Check your background to make sure it’s neat and there’s nothing inflammatory in view. Do not sit in front of a bare window, being backlit will give you a shadowy, garish appearance. I like to pull the reading light off our piano and position it in front of my laptop so that it shines slightly above my head. I want others on the call to be able to see when I smile and notice my engagement in what they’re saying.
- It’s okay to be a little more casual. Since your full name likely already appears on the screen, and you were presumably listed on the meeting invite, you can be briefer with your greeting: “Hi! I’m Nicole. I don’t think we’ve met before! It’s really nice to see you.” You can tell them a little about your job and might ask them, “So how long have you been working here?” or “Tell me more about what you do at Patent and Trademark.”
- Do advanced research. Before you hop on the call look at the names on the meeting invite and try to read a little about what each does. Not only is this polite, but also brevity is key with zoom networking because often the only time you have is the few minutes before the meeting begins. It’s helpful if you can start your introduction a few layers in because you already know their division and their title.
Listening is your main function.
Whether making a new connection online or in person, you should be listening more than talking. It sounds counterintuitive because of course you want them to know about what you do and your value at the organization. But this is your opportunity to create the want for connecting with you again in the future. Stay present and ask questions about what they’ve told you, instead of planning what you’re going to say next. Mind your posture and keep eye contact. Give an occasional nod so they know you’re listening.
The truth is, if you make a new acquaintance feel good because you’re engaged in their message, they’ll be more likely to remember you. You might even paraphrase or repeat something said, such as “I can’t believe you lived in Chicago!” or “So you have been working here since you graduated college? That’s amazing!”
Here are some other things to keep in mind while in conversation:
- Listen to them carefully and see if you can find any commonalities (“You run marathons? or “You like to grill?”)
- Keep your hands out of your pockets. Instead, you can bend your elbows and clasp them in front it you, rest one on the back of a chair, hold something like a notebook or a coffee, or use them to emphasize your words.
- If you think there’s a chance, you might need to pick up your phone, tell them ahead of time- and it better be a good reason. (“Sorry I’m holding my phone, but my son got a flat tire and I’m just waiting for him to let me know AAA got there.”) If they’re a good conversationalist, maybe they’ll even leverage your honesty to point out something they have in common with you (“How old is your son? My just got his license last week!”).
It’s hard to meet people! Don’t let your efforts go to waste. Follow up quickly before the person has time to forget how much they enjoyed talking to you and be conversational to avoid sounding relentless or enterprising. In these modern times, email or text is sufficient. Mention something from your conversation, suggest meeting again, and offer your help too. Be specific about what you might be able to do for them in the future. Here is an example:
“It was nice meeting you this evening. After hearing about your trip to Toronto, I’m dying to go! Let’s keep in touch and maybe meet for coffee next month? Would love to hear more about your divisional work. And if you ever have a question about the legal end of your project, call me.”
Ask a mentor:
We’ve shared broad etiquette strokes, but the culture of your organization will determine other rules you should keep in mind. Ask your mentor to help make a list:
- How specific should I be about my job when meeting new people?
- Is it okay to follow up with very senior leaders if we happened to meet?
- When I meet someone new, outside of my division, how should I keep the relationship going?