5 storytelling tips to make networking feel good again

Dude, my grandpa Arkie is the most incredible storyteller in the world.

He was a canned soup salesman for probably 50 years. And he still has an uncanny ability to turn any topic into something interesting. Seriously, ANY topic. Red Georgia clay. Golf club etiquette. SAT scores. In his hands, it becomes funny, intriguing, and memorable. This man is a business networking dream come true.

And I inherited exactly zero of that.

No natural networking, make-people-instantly-at-ease soup-seller in this kid.

For years, I was shy, uncomfortable, and pretty uptight when it came to networking. I sounded like one of those nerdy white dudes that black comedians make fun of when describing silly “white people.”

Finally learning to apply my knowledge of storytelling to the process has completely changed my networking game. I’ve learned to relax and approach networking more like a game. In particular, a game closely integrated with the powerful tenets of storytelling and the ethos of human connection.

Networking is a surefire way to grow your business, assuming you know how to tell your story in a way that genuinely connects with others. Because we do business with the people we relate to, identify with, and trust.

So even if you don’t think you’re a great storyteller like my Grandpa Arkie, there’s simple ways you can use a storytelling mindset to connect with people when networking. It took me a while to figure out. So how can you get folks to feel comfortable enough around you to really open up?

Here are my five storytelling-driven tips for better networking. Try them and see how they can shift the pain of networking toward the pleasure of human discovery and connection.

1. Ask a (Much) Better Opening Question

Don’t you HATE the deadly, unoriginal question, “What do you do?”

I know I do. Because it asks someone to define themselves (and their worth) by the work they do. Of course, you’ll need to find out this information in a business networking setting, but why not allow yourself to take a more scenic road?

What might unfold if you asked this question instead:

“What’s giving you energy these days?”

People LOVE this question. It allows flexibility in how they answer. Suddenly you’re no longer sizing them up for status or power; instead, you’re asking them what makes them feel alive. This is a great question to ask whether you’re talking to an intern or a bigshot CEO. You’re likely to be rewarded with deeper connection and rapport.

And yes, feel free to steal it!

Here are three additional questions you can use:

  • Where are you from?
  • What’s your connection to the [blank] world/industry/host?
  • What attracted you to this event?
The point is to ask questions that help you locate yourself inside the story of the other person. Make sense?

2. Set Your Emotional Vibe to “Curious”

Do you feel uncomfortable in a room full of strangers? Most people feel the same way. But you’re there, you need to make connections, and this is the time and place to do it. But rather than gritting your teeth and diving in aggressively, take a moment to re-set the desperate or anxious emotional vibe you’re giving off. Relax. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to be painful.

Setting your emotional vibe to “curious” rather than “how-soon-can-I-leave” or “I need everyone to notice me.” This can go a long way to make people feel at ease. It’s like turning on an inner smile; suddenly you become more of a potential friend and ally, and less of a threat.

People tend to open up faster when you show genuine interest and curiosity.

Your body language matters too. Uncross your arms, slow your pace, and look people in the eye. Allow yourself to smile and laugh easily.

Let your aim be to find out about others, rather than to display the polished-to-a-high-gloss facets of yourself that you like to showcase.

Your emotions tell a story.

3. Focus on Relationship over Transaction

I know people who, when facing a major networking event, will set themselves a number of connections to make. Generally it’s a pretty high number, say 10 people in the next hour (then I can leave, thank goodness). Ugh. Who wants to step up and be this dude’s number 8? No, THAT is the guy you are dodging for all you’re worth.

Give up your transactional attitude. Because you are only as strong as your (real) relationships. It’s better to find a handful of people you can get to really know, than it is to employ the spray-gun tactic (makes everyone you meet want to wash their hands afterward).

4. Describe Your Work Like a Story

There comes a time in every conversation where you do need to describe your work.

Don’t blow it by saying “buzzword buzzword buzzword buzzword”.

Or describing yourself as a “consultant”. In fact the worst way to kill a conversation is to say, “I’m a consultant.” Because, you know, who isn’t? And frankly, who cares?

Try a slightly more far-reaching statement (or series of statements) that follow the pattern of Who, What, Who.

  • Who you are – teacher, author, speaker, entrepreneur (the more describe the better)
  • What you do – that solves the following problem, challenge, or issue (nobody cares about the product itself)
  • Who you serve – to a specific audience (define your market like ).

And as you think about your “Who, What, Who” answer, consider the words you use to describe yourself, your solution, and your tribe. Are they human-sounding or just industry-speak? Do they alienate the listener, or draw them in? Refine your language so that you can be engaging, rather than just sounding like a smarty-pants.

5. Have a Nice Business Card

There’s no better way to make a bad impression than when exchanging business cards. Avoid the following: (a) not have a business card, or (b) have a cheap looking business card.

Here’s the thing. Its 2012. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have a dope-looking and professional business card. It doesn’t have to cost you very much either.

Go to Moo.com. Use this link and you’ll save 10%.









Moo.com is where I get my cards done. You can do batches of 50 cards at a time, so there’s no need to order more than you need. The best part is the cutting-edge designed templates you can use (or upload your own). Even the paper is nice and thick and makes a lasting brand impression. Plus the backside of your business card can be customized with different words or graphics. I describe mine as business “tarot cards”, because everyone gets a different card with words on it like Hero, Ethos, Origins, Epic, Truth, and so on. People love getting a card from me. The possibilities are endless as you’ll see with the examples at Moo.com. Again, use this link and you’ll save 10%.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you’re in NYC, join me for my upcoming evening workshop: Storytelling Mojo: How to Get Paid for Being the Real You. It’s an interactive and affordable introduction to better storytelling to better position your work and attract more of the right opportunities. It will also make you a better networker. (I’ve never offered a workshop this cheap before, but the folks at Skillshare convinced me to do so). Your registration includes as a bonus a signed copy of my book Believe Me: a Storytelling Manifesto for Change-Makers and Innovators ($17.95 value). Join the class

Add Your Comment

Okay, your turn! What’s your favorite networking or conversation-starting question? Leave a comment below and share your secrets and insights.

21 thoughts on “5 storytelling tips to make networking feel good again”

  1. Michael Harris

    Great article. Richard Branson’s mom would say my son was shy when he was younger,” recalls Mazzio, and she would make
    excuses for him. But after interviewing the mother of Richard Branson,
    she learned that Branson had also been extremely shy in his youth. Says
    Mazzio, “Eve would have none of it and would say to Richard, ‘You are
    going to stick your hand out and shake. Stop thinking of yourself and
    how you feel, and start thinking of the other person.’” So Mazzio
    required her then-eight-year-old son to greet adults with a handshake, a
    look in the eye, and a thoughtful question – “and he learned very
    quickly there was a huge upside to engaging adults.”

    That’s similar to your comment get curious.

  2. Michael, what if you put the book image and other manifesto details on the back? Or put something else free on the back (like subscribe to get free storytelling tips) so there is a ‘gift’ on one side?

    Then people have an nice easy/free reason to come to your site and give you their details.

    1. Hey Blair, you’re right the possibilities are endless. I like to have variety of words to the back of my cards, and Moo.com allows for this. You’ll notice on this card, i do have an free gift offer on the front, that invites people to download a digital copy of the book. 

  3. Hey, I’m left-handed, green-eyed and half Hungarian. I’m also Chief Executive Horn Tooter at Harmonicopywriter.com Nice to meet you!

  4. Hi Michael
    Here’s a networking exercise I did recently with a room full of creative types. We paired up and were given a word – my word was “surprise”. For 3 minutes I had to tell a story about anything to do with “surprise” while my partner listened and then we switched. We did three rounds with three different words and three different people – no prep time just off the cuff. When the whole group came back together, we had to share one other person’s story, which made for intense listening. The beauty of it was that the content had very little to do with work, it was personal, and from the gut.

    1. Such a cool exercise! I love it. I’m a big fan of providing people with “social lubricant” that gives them permission to connect with otherwise strangers. 

  5. Rebeccajenkins100

    When at a networking event, it’s good to follow up with an email the next day to the people you met, and simply say what you enjoyed about meeting them, (shows you listened) and offer to meet for coffee when they are next in your area.  It gives you another opportunity to build the relationship in a relaxed way.

    1. I totally agree Rebecca. I used to have a pile of business cards after events and conferences, and be terrible about followup. Until I started using http://www.InstantCustomer.com to manage the process. Great tool with business card scanner, auto-responders, and even SMS opt-in for when I’m speaking on stage. 

  6. Love the simplicity & power of the article Michael! Networking events are either a charm or a nightmare! I think a big part of how successful you are at networking ‘in a networking event’ (which sometimes maybe a bit too contrived) is to set a clear intention to ‘genuinely want to positively impact people’s lives’ and believe that you have the capability to do so. With that, everything else starts making sense and fall into place naturally!

  7. Lunareuphoria

    Ohmygoodness.  First time visitor to your site – found you via Etsy.  As an introvert myself, I’ve never considered using the story angle to network. Great suggestion – and fantastic post!

    ….and you’ve inspired me to get business cards. I just checked out moo.com — LOVE the designs.  Thanks for the recommendation!

    Tina (the chicky behind Lunar Euphoria)

  8. Keith Edmeades

    Hey Michael,
    This is brilliant!  Early this year, I vowed that Networking meetings were “for the birds” as my experiece of the ones facilitated by our local Chamber of Commerce & Industry were generally largely ego-driven and highly competitive! But you have shown us here, how more, constructive, and mutually, win/win, for every participant, a networking session can be. Firstly, your opening, “what’s giving you energy these days?” then,”set your emotional vibe to Curious” – how much more constructive you’d be as a “curios” contributor than as an “ego-driven one! And then describe your work as a story – Wow Michael!  That’s awesome! I am truly blown away!  Man! This is RICH! 

    1. Thanks Keith! So glad these networking tips bring some human-ness back into the process for you. It’s taken me years to get over my fears of networking, and it’s still a work in progress. 😉

  9. i like the 
    “tarot cards” idea been thinking of doing something similar but not sure what to put on them lol, although now i need to find me a list of tarot cards. I agree with the post I put on my five finger virburms or something that people will ask me about solves the shy problem.

  10. Pingback: 7 Tips for Networking - Entrepreneur News | Australian Society of Entrepreneurs

  11. Ammishaddai Ofori

    Love your word style Mike. I see you have gotten better with your networking skills (even in blog posts). I am your new fan. Keep in touch.
    @Qubammish – twitter

  12. Pingback: How To Make A Statement At Business Networking Events | Shanghai Metal Corporation

  13. Pingback: How To Make A Statement At Business Networking Events | smc Stainless Steel

Comments are closed.