Whether you love or loathe it, networking is something we all find ourselves doing at some point in our lives.
But are we ever taught how to network properly?
Conversation analysts Professor Elizabeth Stokoe and Dr Magnus Hamann spent time observing how people behave and communicate in networking spaces, and how their actions were influenced by the environment they were in and the objects that were around them.
Based on the findings of the study, they have identified several research-based tips to enable people to network better. They also identified tips for conference and meeting organizers about how to set up the space and furniture.
Know where to place yourself in the room
Conference venues can be large and busy spaces and it can be difficult to know where to place yourself to network.
Start a conversation in the food/drink queue, at a standing table, or a sitting table.
The researchers found that food and drinks queues were easy to join and exit but sitting at a table locked people into a longer chat.
People often moved in pairs from the queue to a standing table to continue the conversation – or moved off in separate directions.
Put your coffee cup on a table
If networking makes you nervous, arrive at the networking area early. Get a drink and place your cup on a standing table.
The visibility of the cup creates an environment for people to interact. It invites others to place their own cups on the table to create a cluster and they start talking.
Join the conversation
To join the conversation, you need to become part of what Adam Kendon calls an ‘interactional circle’ – a circle of people who are already networking. When they talk, people arrange their bodies so that they have equal access – gaze, hearability – to everyone in the group.
A good way of joining the circle is to position yourself in direct line of sight of the people who you want to interact with. They are then likely to realign the circle and welcome you in.
The optimal size of an ‘interactional circle’ is 3-4 people before people break off into smaller groups.
It’s not just ‘hello’ which starts a conversation
A great way to start a conversation in the networking spaces is to approach a standing table, armed with a coffee cup or plate and ask the person already at the table, ‘Is it okay if I also put my cup down here?’
Once you get the go-ahead, you can assess whether they want to talk more. They’ll indicate this by moving their body towards you and asking you something … or not.
Don’t be a mis-greeter
Don’t say hello to someone and then look over their shoulder for the ‘more important’ people in the room.
One effective thing to do is simply ask ‘where are you from?’. The one thing that all delegates have in common is coming from an organization and a place, so start there.
Networking conversations are time-limited
Sometimes we might want to leave a conversation early – while appearing to leave on time.
One advantage of not knowing people at a conference is that you can invent a reason to leave a conversation and they’ll be none the wiser.
But the researchers observed that good exits are built from questions that imply the end of the conversation by pointing to future actions, such as “do you know where the next session is?”
The full study can be downloaded here
Outside the university, she runs workshops with doctors, mediators, salespeople, police and other professionals using her research-based communication training method called the "Conversation Analytic Role-play Method". She is a WIRED Innovation Fellow and her research and biography were featured on the BBC Radio 4’s The Life Scientific. In addition to publishing over 120 scientific papers and books, she is passionate about science communication, translating the world of conversation analysis for audiences of all kinds.
She has given TED, New Scientist, Google and Royal Institution lectures, and performed at Latitude Festival (in the Wellcome Trust/British Psychological Society stage) and Cheltenham Science Festivals. Her book, Talk: The Science of Conversation, is published by Little, Brown (2018).