5 Business Improv Tips for Networking

networking events

“I see there’s a mandatory networking event tonightblargh! I am so uncomfortable at those things. I usually just stand awkwardly, alone at the bar. I think I’ll skip it and catch up on the other ‘49 Shades of Grey.’”

For most, networking is a skill that requires a fair amount of honing before they get comfortable doing it, let alone good at it. Three of the biggest challenges for people getting comfortable with networking are:

  1. Not knowing how to enter a conversation that is already going on;
  2. Not knowing what to say to someone they’ve never met before;
  3. Not knowing how to (gracefully) leave a conversation that they are in.

I’ve attended a few hundred networking events over the last 17 years as a thought leader—whether because I’ve been “strongly encouraged” by my university and corporate bosses, or because I personally thought it would be a great opportunity to hobnob and improvise over cocktails with power players. I can attest that, like so much else in life, the secret here is practice. The more you practice, the more relaxed and confident you get with the overall act of networking.

Here are a few improv tips for success in those obligatory (and occasionally uncomfortable) networking events.

 1. Smile (often)

A smile signals openness, confidence, and an upbeat mood, and you can invite this response from others. A positive outlook will also help you find positive people in the networking gathering. So take the pressure away and simply smile.

A smile signals openness, confidence, and an upbeat mood, and u can invite this response from… Click To Tweet

2. Be Interested (often)

Martin de Maat, the man credited for co-creating The Second City Training Center (and my mentor), used to say, “To be interested is to be interesting.” People are more likely to be pulled toward those who exhibit a real interest in what they have to say. Instead of thinking ahead to your next response, stay present, tune in, and listen attentively. You’ll hear invitations, endowments, and hints in real time that expose opportunities to make connections and strengthen relationships.

To be interested is to be interesting. Click To Tweet

3. Be Polite and Observe the Rules of the Game

When attempting to enter a group that’s already engaged in a dialogue, humbly ask permission to join the chat. If the conversation is of a personal nature they’ll say “no” and you can shimmy on your way instead of standing gawkily next to the group, like someone’s younger who is unwanted at a “cool kid” party. If it’s not a private powwow, they’ll say “yes” and bam, you’re in with the cool kids!

4. Be Empathetic—Use “Yes… And

When entering and leaving groups, use the phrase “Yes, and . . . ” often. This is the cornerstone of all improv around the world. “Yes” indicates acceptance and understanding of what others in the group are saying. “And” demonstrates your thoughtfulness—how well you connect with and build on what others are saying. If you’ve used this technique to generate a good dialogue and you need to leave, ask for a business card, email address, or another way to continue the conversation down the road.

When entering and leaving groups, use the phrase “Yes, and... ” often Click To Tweet

5. Fail early, fail often

The laws of probability dictate that if you put yourself out there enough times in a networking event, you will definitely get rejected and you will definitely find success. Understand going into it that not every conversation will be a homerun—and that’s ok. (Heck, a Major League Baseball player who gets a hit 3 out of every 10 at-bats over the course of his career is a Hall of Fame candidate!). It will help you develop a “thicker skin” and an ability to be more resilient. And when you embrace the fact that failure is bound to happen, the failure itself becomes irrelevant because it’s just a natural part of networking. So, let your personality shine!

When you embrace the fact that failure is bound to happen, the failure itself becomes… Click To Tweet

Like improv, networking gets easier and more effective with practice. The more you practice—the more comfortable you will get with both failure and success—the more you will understand your strengths and weaknesses, and the more you will learn and grow into an expert networker. Smile, have fun, and enjoy the next networking event!


Bob KulhanBob Kulhan is President, CEO, and Founder of Business Improv, an innovative consultancy that specializes in experiential learning and serves an international roster of blue-chip firms, and author of Getting to “Yes, and…”: The Art of Business Improv. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. A performer with over 20 years of stage credits, he has trained with a long list of legendary talents, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. 



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