Networking reception: That one line item on the agenda of trade shows, conferences, and professional gatherings is enough to trigger a sense of apprehension in even the most accomplished architect. But what may sound like a dreadful experience actually makes for an amazing opportunity for professional growth and meaningful relationships.
Nearly half of all design professionals are introverts, according to a small 2011 study, while between 25 percent and 50 percent of the general population are introverts. Whatever your attitude is toward networking, know that you’re not alone. Of the seven emerging to established designers featured in this story, three suggested interviewing other sources, citing their own discomfort at formal networking events; three enjoy networking in part by understanding its necessity; and one enthused about the thrill of bursting into a room filled with strangers (I’ll let you guess who that is). Here are their strategies for making the most of mingling.
1. Check Your Goals
at the Door
Oscia Wilson, AIA, CEO and founder of San Francisco–based Boiled Architecture used to stress about impressing every person at a networking event. She now views the room as a place for exploration, to find out whom the people are and what she can learn from them. “If I go with an attitude of curiosity, it’s much easier and more natural,” she says.
Eric Corey Freed, the International Living Future Institute’s vice president of global outreach and founder of OrganicArchitect, in San Francisco, believes that setting explicit goals for an event—for example, collect five business cards and then leave—limits its potential. “When I go in, I’m open to possibilities,” says the self-proclaimed extrovert. “I want to connect with people and see what happens.”
If you're newer to the profession, you may dread the high probability of knowing no one else in the room, but understand that everyone has been in your shoes at some point. Think of the event as a “dating opportunity,” recommends Richard Pollack, FAIA, managing principal of Pollack Consulting, in Sonoma, Calif. “Everyone is there to meet new people.”
As Nader Tehrani, founding principal of Boston firm NADAAA, former head of MIT's School of Architecture, and current dean of architecture at the Cooper Union, in New York, succinctly put it: “It’s probably best to go for pleasure and then leave if there is none to be had.”
2. Enter with Confidence
Walking into a room where everybody seems to know everybody else is “not for the faint of heart,” Freed says. But take a deep breath and realize that not all eyes are on you, even if you do feel like a deer caught in headlights. “Try not to look at the [crowd] as a monolith,” but rather as a gathering of individuals, each with a different story to tell, says Hadley Arnold, executive director at the Arid Lands Institute at Woodbury University, in Burbank, Calif.
Though networking has become easier for Bob Borson, AIA, a partner at Malone Maxwell Borson Architects, in Dallas, because of his popular blog, Life of an Architect, he still recalls its awkwardness. “When I first started, I tried to find someone who looked as uncomfortable as I felt,” he says. “The room will be full of people with varying levels of comfort, and you can tell who they are.”
“Everybody has an aura about themselves,” says Jing Liu, principal of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based SO–IL. “You want to find person where a more productive conversation can take place, in order to have a fruitful relationship.”
If you can’t find another singleton, look for a friendly looking group of two or three people who aren’t engrossed in a discussion—few things are worse than getting shut out. “If I see someone step up, I will rotate my shoulders or hips so they can feel that the circle has modified itself to include them,” Borson says. “I try to make it easy for someone to join in our conversation rather than [forcing them to] be the first one to say something.”
Can all receptions be filled with Bob Borsons?
To enter a group, Tehrani, who is also often recognized for his work, status, and chunky black glasses, says, “Make yourself known by establishing eye contact. If the recipient does not give you a visual indication that they know you are there, and therefore will talk to you right after, you should stop stalking them—or wait patiently off to the side.” He pauses. “I’m so brutally shy. I couldn’t imagine doing any of these things.”
3. Make Small Talk
Honesty is a good way to start a conversation. “I say, ‘I'm mingling and meeting people I don't know and you guys look friendly,’ and people are pretty receptive,” Wilson says.
Pollack concurs. “Walk up, say, 'Hi,' while extending your hand, and use that time to read the person’s name and company. They’ll be doing the same to you.” Wearing your name tag on your right side will help the other party read it during the handshake, he notes, as will writing your first name in large letters, even it’s already printed on the badge. “And then ask the other party about themselves.”
Meanwhile, Freed sets out to make an impression, often opening with something jarring. “I’m a big fan of saying, ‘Hi, I love that pin and hat,’ or, ‘That’s the ugliest shirt I’ve seen’ [in a jocular way]” he says. I nod into the phone, wondering what business events he is attending in which people often wear pins and hats.
“[Networking] is the art of being a service to everyone else,” Freed continues. Subsequently, his follow-up questions in conversation are: “What can I do to help you?” and “What is the biggest challenge that you’re facing right now?”
Local issues and current events are “topics with the most potential” for Liu, while Arnold generously says, “Whatever the topic is, if it comes from an honest place of curiosity … and wanting to share thoughts, it works for me.”
If you do want to become more memorable beyond another body in business attire, Pollack recommends volunteering some personal information, such as your hometown and family situation. “This allows the other person to open up also, allowing me to start getting to know them as a person and not just a ‘target’ ”—a term he assures me as common among experienced networkers.
4. Ditch the Design
Memorizing a firm’s monograph is not a prerequisite for approaching a designer you admire. “If people know us, great; if they don’t, that doesn’t mean that they don’t want to know us,” Liu says. “It doesn’t matter.”
Tehrani also prefers discussing things other than his firm’s portfolio. “If someone goes straight to your work, I think, ‘Oh god, not another discussion about architecture,’ ” he says. “I just want to interact with people in a normal way. Wouldn't you rather talk about anything that's happening today that has gravity or topics of personal interest and, through that, get a broader sense of who they are?”
Likewise, you should leave your “architectural ego” out of the conversation, Pollack advises. “Never launch into a dissertation on your design philosophy or why you’re a great architect.”
If your target is an in-demand figure in the room, prepare questions or comments to say. “A lot of people will come up to me and say hi,” Borson says. “And they don't have anything else to say. Then there’s nowhere for conversation to go.”
5. Keep an Eye on the Long Game
Though Freed is open to most conversation topics—including politics and religion—he does draw the line when students ask him for career advice in mid-event. “I only have a limited time to work that room,” he says. But he does offer his business card and a chance to chat at another time. Arnold is similarly turned off by such direct requests. “If the topic is utilitarian—do you have a [job] position or an internship?—then the conversation goes dry very fast.”
Expecting instant payback amidst the chaos of a packed room will lead only to disappointment, so drop the salesperson façade and be authentic. Remember, Pollack says, the goal of networking is to “build a large and wide-ranging network without an immediate ROI.” He then quickly distinguishes himself as the networking expert among my sources: “I’ll … learn if there is any [professional] advantage for me to know more about the person and their business,” he says. “If there is no advantage to me, I will find a way to disengage quickly.”
6. End the Conversation Elegantly
Sometimes you hit it off with someone, and sometimes you don’t. After ticking through the standby questions—why are you here, what do you do—you may find yourself at a lull or wanting to move on. That’s when Freed employs his three tried-and-true modes of escape: “I say, ‘I got to get a drink and I’ll be right back,’ and then never come back,” he says. “Or, ‘I see someone leaving that I want to talk to—please excuse me.’ ” And finally, for Freed’s most polite exit: “Give me a card. I want to talk more, but not when it’s crazy.”
Tehrani takes a more direct, but also more tactful, approach to easing out of a conversation. “The most honest way is the best way: ‘I apologize, but I'm late for another appointment.’ If you are truly bored though, you have to find a way to maintain interest.”
7. Don’t Do This
Freed advises everyone, but men in particular, to maintain professionalism throughout the event. “You don’t want to be weird or flirty, or you’ll be that creepy networking guy.” You know what he means.
Also, “don’t lurk,” Borson says. He recounts a time when someone who was obviously interested in meeting him waited just in his periphery for an opportunity to approach him for half an hour, without talking to anyone else in the crowded room. “If they had committed to coming [into the conversation], it wouldn’t have been so odd,” he says. “They were in the creeper zone.”
8. Follow Up After
Treat the distribution and collection of business cards with respect. Liu says she initially holds off on handing over her card. “If it seems to be a productive conversation and we want to follow up, we’ll give our name card and hope [the conversation] continues.”
Freed sees the exchange of business cards truly as an exchange. “I don’t give a card without getting one, mostly because I want to retain the ability to contact them,” he says. He also makes a show of taking notes on the card before its owner, particularly if he promises a follow-up item. He then uses a Dymo CardScan machine to log the card. “I'm a visual person, so seeing the card helps me remember the person. I also record the date of when we met, and [make myself] follow up within a week.”
Wilson also writes on business cards something memorable about the other party as well as a frequency for following up. Her administrative assistant then enters the card information into her address book along with the person’s name as a recurring event in her calendar. “If it's been several months since we've talked, then they'll pop up on my calendar and I’ll be reminded to send them a note,” Wilson says.
Sending an email within 24 hours is the key to avoid being forgotten, Pollack says. Include in the message that “you enjoyed meeting them, plan a time to [meet] again, and suggest an activity.”
And, if it’s not obvious already, composing an email is not the same thing as texting. Borson says he receives hundreds of emails per week, many of which are devoid of punctuation and capitalization. “I’m not a fuddy duddy, but it doesn't seem like the right way to communicate with someone you just met,” he says. This minimal extension of courtesy shouldn’t stop there. Borson says he replies to as many email questions and requests as possible, but often gets radio silence in return. “There should always be three emails at least,” he says. Something as simple as “thank you for this response. It should always be an A–B–A exchange.”
Preach it, Bob. And, on that note, thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts, fears, and advice for facing one of the most stressful scenarios in any profession.