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Networking: How To Disengage From a Dead-End Conversation

We’ve all found ourselves trapped in a dead-end conversation at a networking event. Someone drones on about a topic in which you have no interest. Or, it’s simply someone you don’t like. Or, there’s nothing wrong with the topic or the person, but you can’t spend that much time with any one person.
You need an escape that doesn’t require you to be rude. Before I give you some tricks to manage this situation, let’s first take a look at why this happens, and how you can avoid most of it.
This problem is often the result of aimlessly talking with anyone and everyone about almost anything, because you have no clear purpose. Since you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish, you’re neither screening conversation partners nor directing the conversation. You’re guaranteeing irrelevant or indulgent chatter.
Randomness also causes you to go to the wrong events, populated by too few people of the type you want to meet. When you go to an event simply because it’s available, you’re taking the Fogameer Approach, i.e., speaking with anyone who can fog a mirror.

Don’t Network; Hunt
The solution? Change your approach from networking to hunting. My definitions of the terms are intentionally stark, perhaps even a bit harsh:
Networking: You hang around any available event, with no purpose, chatting with as many people as you can, initiating “relationships,” thinking that coming home with a biz card from anyone with a pulse constitutes some type of success.
Hunting: You know who you want to speak with, and more importantly, who you don’t. You have a specific profile of who would need someone with your skills, and the conditions that trigger demand for those skills and expertise. You only attend events with a high likelihood of being populated with people who match that profile. You spend your time filtering the room, briefly exploring the problem you solve, testing for those who acknowledge having that problem, and disengaging from others as graciously as possible.
When you arrive and pick up your badge, take a look at how it’s formatted. Where does the company name appear? Is it easily read from 5-6 feet away? If so, you can scan badges to identify the wearer’s likely industry affiliation, and avoid those who are irrelevant. (In your profiling exercise, you’ll have deduced which industries have high concentrations of companies experiencing your demand-triggering problem.)

Your Escape Plan
Even so, you’ll still occasionally get trapped. When that happens, the way to escape graciously is to first test whether or not the person acknowledges that her company is experiencing, or faces, your demand-triggering problem.
You (reading her badge): “Hello, Jane. Mike O’Horo (extending your hand). Nice to meet you.”
Jane: “Jane Newman. Nice to meet you, too, Mike.”
You (pointing to her badge): “Integrated Biometrics? I’m not familiar with your firm, but it sounds like you might be in the secure access business. How close am I?”
Jane: “Good guess. We make biometric identification devices that secure sensitive areas for hospitals and defense contractors.”
Jane’s company matches your target profile.
You: “From what I see in the business press, that’s a very dynamic business these days.”
Jane: “Oh, yes. It feels like the technology changes monthly. It borders on chaos.”
You: “Besides the pace of technical innovation, it seems like biometric security companies are also wrestling with [your demand-triggering problem]. You’re in the business. Tell me, am I on track, or way off base?”
Jane: “You’re pretty close, but [Jane modifies your understanding of the problem].”
You: “Thanks for clarifying. That makes sense. I’d love to chat with you about some ideas I have for dealing with that, but I don’t want to monopolize your attention. You’re here to network. Would it make sense for us to explore this by phone over the next week or so?”
Jane: “Sure, but this week is a bear for me.”
You: “I understand. Mine’s a bit jammed too. (Pull out your phone.) Want to put something on our calendars now, and confirm it tomorrow?”
Jane: “No, Mike. Too many things are fluid right now. Send me an email next week and we’ll see what can work.”
You: “Ok. May I get your card?” (Don’t say, “Here’s my card.” By doing so, you give up control of the contact to Jane. You always want to be the initiator. You know you’ll email Jane; you don’t know that Jane will email you.)
Jane’s company doesn’t match your target profile, but is related to it.
You (pointing to her badge): “Integrated Biometrics? I’m not familiar with your firm, but it sounds like you might be in the secure access business. How close am I?”
Jane: “Close, but not close. We aggregate the data that those devices collect, and analyze it for activity patterns.” You: “Interesting. Do you partner with the device companies?”
Jane: “Sure.” You: “I’m writing an article about how [your demand-triggering problem] affects the biometric security business. Do you think any of your partners would be willing to have a brief call with me to get a quote from them?” Jane: “I don’t see why not. They might welcome the exposure.”
You: “Would it be an imposition for me to ask you to introduce me to a few of them?”
Jane: “Not at all.” You: “Thanks so much. I don’t want to monopolize your attention here. How about if I send you an email to arrange a time for a brief call about who might make the most sense?”
Jane: “That’s fine. Here’s my card.”
Jane is a dead end.
You: “So far tonight, I’ve been wrong on most of my badge guesses. Oh, well. Jane, I apologize, but I’ll have to excuse myself. One of my clients is in the middle of something timesensitive, and I can feel my phone buzzing in my pocket, so I’d better find a quiet spot. It’s nice to have met you.”

Mike O'Horo

Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first interactive online rainmaking training for lawyers, by which lawyers learn how to attract the right kind of clients without leaving their desks. For 20 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach. He trained more than 7000 of them, generating $1.5 billion in new business. Mike can be reached at mikeohoro@rainmakervt.com

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About the Author: Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first interactive online rainmaking training for lawyers, by which lawyers learn how to attract the right kind of clients without leaving their desks. For 20 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach. He trained more than 7000 of them, generating $1.5 billion in new business. Mike can be reached at mikeohoro@rainmakervt.com

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