Making friends

Released: Monday 22 November 2021

On this episode we talk about how a networking event doesn’t have to be a good party ruined and give you some tips about getting in, getting out and making friends.

Audio version

Text version

Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet on our communications engine. I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: And this week, we’re going to be talking about networking. Or as I call this in the show notes, Tom, “Oh no, networking.” And I call it that for a reason. Because we’ve been working with people in business for twenty years and that’s what they say to us again, and again. Grown up professional people with significant experience and amazing insight and skill into their specialist areas. They really hate the idea of going to a party with a lot of other people and building relationships for work.

Tom Salinsky: I’m certainly aware that it creates an enormous difference just in the way that the event is contextualized and framed. As you say, a networking event is a party, an opportunity to meet people, it should be a nice thing. Well, as soon as we put that label “networking” on it, it changes. And I think one of the things that changes is there’s now an obligation on you, you’re here for a specific purpose. And that purpose is maybe not one we’re all terribly comfortable with.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, I remember     a specific occasion in which I actually went to a networking event with my business hat on.

Tom Salinsky: Oh, I’m sorry.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, I know. Basically, I was invited by one of our improv students Sital – hello Sital, he’s in Singapore now, where he works for Microsoft. And he knew that we needed to build up connections when we first started. And the stakes were slightly raised because I was the only person there apart from Sital who I knew. And also it was in quite a high stakes environment. It was at the National Liberal Club. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, it’s a big swanky…

Tom Salinsky: I think I went to a wedding reception there once. Does that sound plausible?

Alex MacLaren: Sounds very plausible. It’s a grandiose imperial building on Northumberland Avenue, on Embankment. And this man talked about his business consultancy, to a group of people sitting in rows. And the awful thing was I felt this pressure to impress people, which is so bad for anybody’s sense of ease and relaxation, and actually gets in the way of impressing people And I remember the subject came up between me and this basically old white haired, be-suited, posh man, and which we were talking about psychometric testing. And I didn’t know much about psychometric testing, certainly not at the time. And I referred to it as “psychometry”. Which isn’t a word, Tom. Which I would never have done if I hadn’t been tried to make some kind of impression and I was off my topic. And he eyeballed me and said, “What’s psychometry?” And I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. But that is it. I think it’s just that heightened sense of this is a sort of a version of me, which is reaching for something and needs to take home the booty.

Tom Salinsky: And of course, something like that could have happened at a regular party. But if it did, there will be people into whose grateful arms, you could fall. And you could explain what had happened, you would be able to leave. And you wouldn’t have felt like you had been set a task at the beginning of the evening, which you now failed at, because the only reason you go to a party is to meet people and have fun. Whereas when you go to an event like this, you’re meant to come away with scalps in the form of business cards, if people today still give out business cards? I don’t know.

Alex MacLaren: I don’t think they do. Actually, no, I was asked for one on Monday. And handed it out because I had them at the bottom of my bag, where they were in reasonably good condition. I think it actually presses people’s really old buttons. So one thing that happens when you walk into a room full of people at networking events is that you often see other groups of people talking to each other. And they’re often in little circles and everybody has a glass of Chablis or their non-alcoholic tipple of choice.

Tom Salinsky: Especially if you’ve arrived on your own. You look around the room and you’ve seen these sort of hermetically sealed cliques. These groups which will admit no intruders.

Alex MacLaren: Yes. And actually, you don’t know whether these are groups of people that just met ten minutes ago and are so delighted with each other’s company, the last thing they want would be some other numpty to come along and interrupt the fun. Or for all you know, these are old alliances and people who haven’t seen each other for a long time and again, they don’t want to be interrupted by somebody new. And that tends to be the negative assumption that can occur to people when they walk into those big rooms. There is also the fact that when we are sent off looking for scalps, often we’ll go with our own hunting band. So you will arrive not alone with the mental and the headspace to make connections, you’re arriving with somebody and holding their hand or they’re holding yours. And you’ll end up basically talking to each other throughout the evening and not really talking to anybody else.

Tom Salinsky: And that’s all about making sure that you’re comfortable. And that’s exactly what we all do when we put in situations where we don’t feel we’re entirely on safe ground. But that can lead to misjudgments. One thing I’ve observed, as a don’t, as a thing not to do, if you finally pluck up the courage to let go of your friend’s hand and you say to each other, I’m going to go and find people to talk to you, if you look around, and what you see are all of these sealed groups, you need to pick one of them and approach it. And I recommend barreling up and just saying hello to everybody in as open and friendly and as confident in a manner as you can muster. That will feel terrifying the first time you try it. But here’s why you have to do that. What you’re going to be tempted to do is to stand near that group, and wait either for somebody to notice you and beckon you in, or possibly for somebody to say something, and you think our ah I can contribute to that. But you can’t control either of those things. They might happen or they might not. And if they don’t, which on the balance of probabilities is the more likely outcome, you are now lurking on the outskirts of a group, for second after horrifying second.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, I mean, thinking about this, because of the anxiety that hits us when we go into this space that can often produce feelings and then behaviors of timidity. And I suppose if, if I’m feeling comfortable at an event, and I can see somebody who clearly needs to be looked after, or potentially even rescued, then if I have the presence of mind, and I’m not immediately distracted, then I will reach out and do the rescuing and invite that person in and warm them up. And they’ll often have amazing contributions to make. But I think that if I’m not entirely comfortable, and I’m still kind of managing my own anxiety in that situation, I may not feel like I have the wherewithal to rescue somebody else, as well as myself. And I think that is often what will happen is that people will… their timidity will leak out and they won’t be a kind of sort of like a kitten saying, pick me up and stroke me, it will be like a smelly dog that people want to repel from the kitchen. And so I think it is very much a good thing to front up and look positive as you’re approaching people. I think when I’ve worked with people about networking events, one thing which they’re always anxious about is spoiling it for other people, i.e., interrupting a conversation, rather than joining one. So I always suggest, as you approach groups of people make very, very clear physical signals that you’re coming, and that you want to join in. Because you don’t need to interrupt with “Hello! Stop your conversation, I want to introduce myself,” you can simply make very strong signals with your eyes and eyebrows – I’m coming to join you, this sounds interesting. And then you can listen to the conversation before you then fold yourself into it. And when you’ve listened to it, you can actually make contributions to that conversation rather than insisting they start a new one with you.

Tom Salinsky: Yes, it’s worthwhile, I think looking around and thinking, not just which group looks inviting. But also, is there a group given how I’m feeling, given my level of comfort and confidence and so on, is there a group where I think I could make it better, you know, you put the group is having a worst time in the room, and there’s a danger that you’re going to be walking into conversational quicksand. And all that’s going to happen is that you’ll go down with them. But if you pick a group that’s having a fantastic time, where you think I’d like to be part of that group, there is a very grave danger, you may go in and make it worse. So, try and pick the group where you think you can add something where given how ebullient you’re feeling, you could go into that group and make it a bit more cheerful and give them a better time than they’re having at the moment.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, I do think there’s a thing about am I diluting what’s going on and thus spoiling it for everybody…

Tom Salinsky: Or am I fortifying it?

Alex MacLaren: Or contributing to it. Yeah, absolutely. I’m just interested as well that when we go in to a networking event, it’s not the same as going around to your friend’s house for a party. It’s more like going to one of those big events where there are a lot of individual guests and it is worth asking – if I had a guest coming round to my house for a party, what would a good guest do? And I think they would certainly wants to help support the party itself. So it’s worth thinking when you go along to a networking event, what did the organizer have in mind when they set this whole thing up? What is it that they would like to have as an outcome? Which means that you can slightly shift your focus from self-consciousness about yourself to other people’s needs, which I think is always a really good attitude to take with you, when you’re trying to engage socially with new people – what do they need out of this interaction rather than just you?

Tom Salinsky: And organisers themselves can sometimes take proactive action. I’m now recalling, when we used to run regular improvisation workshops, on the first day of what would be a series of eight weekly classes, something between ten and twenty people would show up, and they’d all be strangers, and people would have trouble finding the place sometimes. So over about twenty minutes, those people would slowly arrive. And very often I was having to duck in and out and guide people in and so on. So there’d be a circle of chairs, which would gradually start filling up – people very rarely sit next to a stranger. And sometimes there’ll be a couple of people there who are just very outgoing and personable and without me having to do or say anything, the room will be full of noise and activity. And I as the organizer will be feeling: this is going really well. But on at least one occasion, I clearly remember coming back in and having found somebody who was calling me saying I can’t find the place and having walked them in. And I had to walk in with this person to room that was totally silent. And I had to say, “Guys, as we’re still waiting for a few more people, turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself,” and just make that an instruction. And people did. And then when I had to go out again and come back the room was full of energy and people discovered that the totally random strangers sitting next to them was a nice, interesting person. And their reason for coming to this event was a topic of conversation.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, I think when you’re hosting a party and your network and networking if part of it, or building networks is part of the brief, particularly at the beginning of the assembly of a group, one thing which I discovered early is that if I was talking to everybody, the conversations wouldn’t begin. So I actually had to, as the host, drop my voice and start an individual conversation with one person – not in order to exclude everybody else, but in order to give people permission to talk to each other so that there was not only one conversation happening in that room. And so we do sometimes have to be quite strategic about these things, when it’s our responsibility to be like that.

Tom Salinsky: The other thing which people ask me, we talked about how you get into a group. The other thing people ask me is, how do I get out? How do I leave? How do I end a conversation? Because if you have made a bad call – or even if just you’ve been talking to this person or this group of people for what feels like long enough and given that you’re there to meet lots of different people, being stuck in the same conversation for an hour, two hours is a bad outcome. So people need a way of removing themselves without causing offence. Do you have any tips about that?

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, I notice people feel embarrassed about making lying excuses. So I have to make this urgent call. Or I must visit the bathroom and hopefully they can sneak out another door and find themselves talking to somebody else. And so people do feel this sense of I want to have an honest reason for extricating myself from a conversation. I think as far as actual formal networking is concerned, the more brightly you can simply say it’s been a pleasure, I’m going to do some more circulating, because that’s a sort of a kind of a verb to describe what people are supposed to do at party’s which people generally understand. You have also to be strong. It’s tough love, you may see their crestfallen face because they’re about to be abandoned by their lifebelt, who has supported them for the first twenty minutes of this event. But I think we can sometimes get stuck imagining that we are indispensable to this person now, simply because it went well. And I don’t think we are. If you’ve had a conversation with this person, somebody else can have a conversation with them as well. And if they truly are incredibly hard work – and let’s be frank sometimes that’s how it feels – then it’s probably a good thing for everybody that the load is spread out beyond just you or you and one other person.

Tom Salinsky: Yeah, the expectation that we’re there to make contacts and figure out what can you do for me, what can I do for you the kind of grubby commerciality of that is one of the things that brings that pressure to bear but you’re right, you can – like a judo master – use that to your advantage, you can say quite explicitly, we’re here to meet lots of people. As fascinating as you are, I’ve been talking to you with only you for twenty minutes. Let’s both go and find new people to talk to. And let’s meet up later and compare notes.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, it’s funny, I was just talking earlier on to our colleague Gina, who in a former life used to run a networking club in Adam Street. And she was saying that they used to do formal speed networking, with the idea that by setting a clock every three minutes, you could get through thirty people very quickly. And by that means you’d actually have gone through a kind of triage process. And then you would genuinely have a kind of a shortlist then of the people that you really do want to spend slightly more time with as you went through the evening. Now, I mean, that does make the sort of motivated, connecting somewhat explicit, but then anyone who’s going to an event like that, is there with that motivation in mind. So it just kind of takes the responsibility for that shifting from person to person and making sure you meet as many people as possible off the shoulders of the individual party attended. And you can see why that would liberate people.

Tom Salinsky: The other thing, which I think is vital, is understanding your own role in the conversation. If you are trying to draw someone out who’s a bit shyer than you are, who is not having as good a time as you’re capable of having, you’ll want to ask them questions in order to get them to respond. But if you’re not careful, early on in the conversation with someone who’s not feeling quite at ease, yet, they may be giving you rather short answers. And you can start sort of interrogating them, you know, did you manage to go on holiday this year? Yes. Where did you go? Skiing. Do you go skiing every year? Answer the question!! And what’s missing from this interaction, which would be present? If you are talking to your friends is your reaction, and your opinion. So if you ask somebody, did you go on holiday and they say, Yes, we went skiing, you’ll probably have a view about skiing, you might also enjoy skiing, which is great. Now you found a subject that you have in common. But if you dislike skiing, or you just like the idea of skiing, then you can also say that, and now the skiing enthusiasts that you’re talking to might have quite a good time selling skiing to you.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, it’s funny. There’s a very important relationship in my life, which is very frustrating. The person involved never asks me questions, and is always telling stories…

Tom Salinsky: Is it your son?

Alex MacLaren: No, and I’m not going to say. So that’s incredibly frustrating. But you’re right, that the problem isn’t necessarily whether somebody asks questions, it’s who is this person who is asking me questions? And have they disclosed enough for me to feel safe about swapping my feelings on any trivial subject? Because then we’re finding that that shared territory. And so I do think asking questions is important. But you’re correct, it’s the follow up, and the sharing that comes out of that questioning, which makes it safe rather than, as you say, an interrogation in which the questioning is designed to make you vulnerable and expose you and get you convicted in court. And that’s sometimes how it can feel when people are politely trying to express interest in us. But they’re not actually sharing enough in order to make it safe for us to then share our own positions on things.

Tom Salinsky: One of the things that’s, of course, going to, I think, come out a lot of the conversations that we have on this podcast, is the fact that not all the kind of communications that we’re doing look the same because of lockdown, and the pandemic, and so on. And there are people who have run networking events in online spaces, they’ve done Zoom things where you can have half a dozen people in breakout rooms, out of a population of several hundred in some cases.

Alex MacLaren: I think that’s really significant. And there’s something to be learned, which is relevant both online and in person, which is that when you have crowds of people in an online space, like a Teams call, or a Zoom call, it’s never particularly satisfying experience until you break it down into smaller groups. And in fact, I would argue that all of the most satisfying interactions in the universe are one on one. It’s often said, in my background as an actor, that all of the best scenes are dualogues. And if it’s a monologue, it’s a dualogue between you and an audience. Those are the ones which are most satisfying. So if you’re running an online event, get familiar with how to send people out into breakouts in pairs. I know that we’ve had a lot of success randomizing those breakout pairs, partly so that people can connect with a lot of different people and the responsibility for choosing who those people are is not theirs, but also so that people can be rescued from challenging situations, again, without having to feel that they’re stuck in that situation.

Tom Salinsky: But if you do have a breakout group, which is bigger than two, which I agree is not ideal, there is the danger that two or three people, out of let’s say six, will do the vast majority of the talking and there’ll be one or two people who barely contribute at all. And I think one of the most vital things that you can do is notice who has hasn’t spoken up yet, and draw them in. And of course, one of the glorious benefits of meeting people on Zoom is that their name is replica cartier displayed in little letters underneath the image of their face. So you don’t have to worry about remembering who that person was, you can just look and say, Sam, we haven’t heard from you. You can even call it out. You don’t have to, but you could, you can be as bold as to call it out. Did you have anything you wanted to add to this? Yeah, and that’s something I’ve been doing on Zoom meetings, from quite early on.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s really significant how reassuring that is to people. And it does make me want to return to this in a later episode about remembering names. It is also, I’ve got to point out that it doesn’t happen with such reliability on MS Teams, where people can very quickly vanish into a couple of initials in a circle at the bottom of the screen. And not having actually written in white in the bottom left corner of the screen suddenly makes you feel like very vulnerable and anxious.

Tom Salinsky: And also some people who are sharing devices, oh, yes, they not have the accurate name.

Alex MacLaren: Oh, it happens again, and again, or it just says “Work Zoom”, which is not their name at all. And one thing, which actually, I suppose is interesting is thinking about what connections have you made virtually, where you haven’t yet met in person. And I recently had an experience when somebody who I know through conversations we have had with each other via Facebook threads actually showed up in my town, and we met up for a cup of tea. Have you ever had one of these experiences Tom, like via Twitter or or kind of a social media friendship?

Tom Salinsky: Sort of. One of my best friends is somebody that I initially interacted with on a bulletin board, a forum…

Alex MacLaren: That’s outstanding!

Tom Salinsky: …and then met this person in real life.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it does feel it does feel slightly like dating. Do you know what I mean? So there is something about the… I guess, you’re acknowledging a connection of some kind, at least. Those friendships are really precious to me. It was really intriguing with this particular person, when she came around to my house. She was looking at the house and looking at me. So it can be very anxiety inducing for both parties when you’re first encountering each other. You need to acknowledge that and cut a lot of slack, which I think is something we don’t necessarily do. We don’t notice that. In networking situations, most people recognize it’s not very easy for most people most of the time. And therefore, we’re likely to be much more forgiving and generous about the awkwardnesses and screw ups that inevitably happen. So your homework for this week, for networking, listeners of this show, is at your next party, aim to spend time just having one real conversation, just lower the stakes on the whole thing. Even if you’ve been told to go and meet specific people, or meet as many people as possible, spend time just building one connection, listening and sharing and connecting with one individual because that real connection, then gets witnessed by other people. People are always very, very conscious of who are the people who are successfully making connections around them. And when they notice one connection being made, that becomes magnetic, and it starts to raise the likelihood of you then making a second and a third real connection with other people at that party.

Tom Salinsky: And if you’ve got any stories that you’d like to share with us, or any questions, anything that you thought we were going to tackle it and that we didn’t on the subject of networking, or any communications challenge, do please get in touch with us. You can send us an email to and we can read it out. Or you can record your thoughts and send us a voice message which we can play. Or you can send us a tweet, I’m on @tomsalinsky.

Alex MacLaren: I’m tweeting at @SpontaneityShop. Until next time, I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.