Authentic Networking: Why ‘sell yourself’ may be the least useful advice you’ll ever receive

 Networking is a key tool for exploring opportunities or advancing your career, so why do many people hate it?

For many of us the process doesn’t come naturally. MBAs, especially, are told they need to schmooze, pitch, close, get commitment, deliver punchy statements about strengths at the drop of a hat, and to drop all modesty. Why is this poor advice for most business school graduates?

Because it ignores the way we are; and misunderstands what really works.

How do you really feel about impressing and talking about your strengths? If you hate the idea, you’re not alone. A 2014 US survey revealed that many people feel ‘grubby’ after networking events. One person reported using large amounts of hand sanitizer.

The dangers of staying in broadcast mode

We’re told to prepare a smart, pushy ‘elevator’ pitch, without thinking about how it feels to be on the receiving end. Most of the time, we hate being sold to, particularly when we’re trying to enjoy ourselves.

Remember the last time someone ‘pitched’ to you at a conference coffee break? It’s dull listening to other people talking about themselves at length. If you feel you’re being sold to, that provides unwelcome pressure – and makes you feel you’re the least important person in the conversation. Better networkers listen more than they speak, seeking information before talking about their own experience.

Take the focus off yourself and your script. Feeling you must make half a dozen strong points when you speak means that your attention is all on yourself. Genuine listening has two key ingredients: paying attention, and showing attention. Make a gift of your attention. Borrow a technique used by public figures: point yourself squarely towards the individual you’re talking to, lean in slightly, and make them feel they are the most important person in the world for 60 seconds.

Finding an authentic style -communicating in energised stories

Don’t assume you’ll need to say uncomfortable things – muttering ‘I’m brilliant at....’ through gritted teeth, or starting every sentence ‘I am’. Instead of describing your highlights as if you’re on the TV programme The Apprentice, try talking about the things you find most interesting. ‘I’m fascinated by....’ is much easier to say than ‘I’m skilled at....’

Develop a style that works for you. It makes sure you’re remembered, but doesn’t make you feel grubby or a fake. How? Talk the way you talk when you’re relaxed. With friends you’re far more likely to express interest, curiosity, or happiness than to talk about your abilities. You are less likely to say ‘I am good at’, and more likely to say ‘I really enjoy’. That’s the place to start. Communicate energy rather than ego. Show, don’t tell – tell stories that demonstrate your strong interests rather than making assertions. Stories are remembered longer than information, and good stories even longer.

Authentic impact puts relationship building and trust first. You don’t need to fake it, just produce the best version of you.

Networking for softies, and getting the bounce-on

Think about the style of what you say as much as the content - so that relationships are forged as well as connections. Rather than delivering a monologue, show a genuine interest in other people’s experience and responses. Seek conversations, not speech-making opportunities.

The aim of authentic networking is giving people a strong reason to move you forward - into new territory, new conversations. Look for personal links in what is being said before jumping in with information about your background. Even when someone says ‘Tell me about you….’, focus on your areas of investigation rather than your skills. Talk about products, ideas and organisations you find energising. ‘I’m fascinated by....’ is much easier to hear than ‘I’m good at....’ – and it provokes interesting responses.

Begin somewhere easy – don’t get locked into endless rehearsal. Start with people you find easy to talk to – including business school alumni. First this will be for encouragement, but soon you’ll get information and useful connections. If you confirm that you’re easy to talk to and show genuine fascination for relevant topics, your natural final question is ‘who else should I be talking to?’ - and you’ll usually get an answer.


John Lees is one of the UK’s best known career coaches and authors. He specialises in helping people make difficult decisions. His book The Success Code explains how quieter people can make a bigger impact.