Thursday, July 10, 2008

Well Read and Well Rounded

In the past few months, I have talked about networking, from pointers on successful networking event preparation to using networking to find job leads. Today, I want to talk about something that I have developed as a real networking strength: a wealth of knowledge about a wide range of topics.

Have you ever gone to a social hour and been stuck talking to someone who works in, say, real estate and can only talk about real estate, something you know nothing about, or couldn't care less about? I've had that experience, and it makes me frustrated, that I am put in a position where I can't contribute to the conversation, and I'm much less likely to make a useful connection with this type of person. When I go to a networking event, I go prepared to talk to anyone.

At one point in my college career, I had a professor who was morally outraged by the lack of appreciation for the liberal arts outside of academe. He told us about a conversation he was party to where one person said, "why on earth would anyone get a degree in liberal arts?" The response: "So he could have something to talk about to bar customers while he mixes their drinks." A mild chuckle rippled through my class at the joke, but the professor became agitated and belted out: "I thought the man who said that should be shot!"

Academic defense of liberal arts aside, the joke rings true in a lot of ways. Having studied medieval history, the birth of the Renaissance, the Middle East in the 19th century to the mid-20th, mythology, folklore, symbolic logic, Ancient Greek, French, Italian, art history, environmental science and so forth, I am capable of talking to anyone about almost anything. Since finishing college, I took on leadership, organizational theory, academic law and developmental psychology in grad school. And currently, in between interviews and applications, I'm reading plenty of books, on career development, colonial Africa, lobotomy patients, Buddhism, and more. I keep myself informed of current events through the New York Times, and the business world through the Boston Business Journal or the Wall Street Journal.

Some people might say it's a waste of time, but really, I see it as a conversational investment. I will never be the person at a cocktail party who either sits on the sidelines saying nothing, or blathers on about the same thing over and over again. I have something to talk about with complete strangers on the subway, or a potential donor. With older people, I can talk about old movies (I'm a huge Bette Davis fan), with younger people, I can discuss social media. My love of the weird and wonderful often comes in handy; discussing my thesis chapter on leprosy or the practice of mummification are two things that tend to create some of the most lively discussions.

Two things I tend to avoid in networking are politics and religion (specifically Judaism, Christianity, or Islam; there is less of a risk in discussing Hinduism or Zen). These two topics can create very heated discussions, and nothing breaks down a burgeoning relationship faster than political or religious tension. There have been plenty of wars started over these issues (think WWII's politics, or the Balkan religious conflict), but I've yet to see a war over whether Meryl Streep is the greatest living actress or not, or whether solar or wind power will be the next big energy industry. Also, avoid talking about your personal health. No one wants to hear about your cough, catarrh, or canker sores.

Before you go to your next networking event, consider your conversational repertoire. If your event is an industry conference, have you read the work of the presenters? Do you know the latest trends? If there's a social event, consider clicking through Google News or CNN for a round-up of the day's headlines, or skimming Wikipedia for summaries of the latest bestseller books. Other sources for good conversational fodder are shows like Oprah, Today, or anything on PBS. Make sure you have some light and fluffy material (the latest hit video on YouTube) and something more serious in stock (are speculators really to blame for the increase in oil prices?).

The worst thing you can do is be the person who talks about one thing and bores those he is talking to. If you feel like you may be dominating the conversation, step back and ask, "What do you think?" of the person next to you. Smile and act graciously; don't overdo anything. With a good library of topics, you won't be left speechless when the group begins discussing the layoffs on Wall Street over the subprime lending debacle, or has Angelina Jolie actually given birth yet.

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(C) 2007 - 2009 Kate Hutchinson. All rights reserved.

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