Back in the day, I was really good at first dates. I could engage for two or three hours and barely take a breath. I could keep it going with my hands tied behind my back. I had questions to ask about everything. I was filled with witty responses. She would talk and laugh from the moment I picked her up until I dropped her off. I was proud of my first-date banter. I was prepared.
Second dates were harder, but boy, did I have the first date mastered.
You need to be “first-date ready” before you go to your first networking meeting. It’s time to do some prep work.
Now is the time, before your first meeting, to work on some of that banter. You’ll want to start thinking about how you’re going to make your referral source meetings interesting and fun. You’re going to need to be prepared for an awful lunch when that accountant you invited has single-syllable answers to your questions and you need to carry the conversation for 90 minutes in a restaurant with the slowest service of all time. You need to think this through now before it happens (because it’s going to happen).
Your Handy, Dandy Lunch Toolkit
Your lunch toolkit should consist of the following items:
1. Enough research conducted on your lunch partner so that you’re already thinking about things you have in common, things you’d like to learn from your contact, and ways you might be of use to your lunch mate.
2. A well-rehearsed biography of yourself told as an interesting story with details on what you’re doing now along with how you do it. Also, be ready to answer any questions about your work and your history.
3. Tons of questions you can ask so you’re mostly listening and your guest is mostly talking.
4. A mildly amusing monologue you can use if lunch is a complete and total disaster and you need to do something to keep things comfortable and avoid the two of you staring at one another in silence for the entire meal.
Let’s flesh that out a bit.
When we talked about researching your networking list, we discussed doing a bit of light research on your prospective networking partners. By the time you meet them, you’ll know the basics from quick Internet searches. You’ll already have some questions based on your research. Your curiosity will have been piqued by some of the information you found. Go easy on your lunch date. It’s helpful if you don’t act like you’re conducting a cross-examination when you start asking questions. People respect preparation and interest, but they fear the stalker.
2. Your Bio
You should also be prepared to talk about yourself. Anticipate the questions you’re going to get and prepare good answers. You’ll frequently get questions about where you went to school, what brought you to the area, and what kind of work you’ve been doing. I asked a young woman at a casual lunch meeting why she had left her previous firm. “I was fired. They didn’t think I could handle it,” she explained. Wrong answer. You can do better than that.
Be ready when the questions come your way. No one is going to ask you anything hugely challenging or unpredictable, but it’s better to think through your responses in advance. Consider what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Don’t let your first networking conversation feel like your first networking conversation. Prepare.
These conversations largely won’t be about you if they’re going well. They’ll be about the other person, but you should anticipate that you’re going to be the topic of at least some of the conversation. Be prepared to talk about you. Be ready to explain what you do, how you do it, and who you serve. Be ready to explain why you do what you do and what gets you excited about doing it. Be ready to talk about what interests you outside of work. Be ready to explain your personal life if it comes up. Be ready to explain your experience and your education.
4. War Stories
Finally, build a monologue you can rely on in case of disaster. I suggest that you put together three or four amusing stories based on things that have happened in your cases or in the courtroom. Practice the stories and be ready to keep lunch going if it’s harder than expected. I’ve rarely had to pull my stories out and use them to keep lunch going, but it’s comforting to know that I can carry the hour if forced. There’s nothing more awful than sitting across from an accountant who won’t speak, looking at one another and chewing for what seems like forever, hoping the lunch will end.
A Prep Strategy That Works
There’s no telling what’s going to come up at a networking lunch or coffee, but there’s only upside when it comes to being prepared. Think about the kinds of questions you’d like to ask and be prepared to answer those same questions. In fact, it’s pretty typical for your lunch partner to turn each of your questions around and ask them of you. Be ready.
Here’s the nitty-gritty on what you should be prepared to discuss.
- Basic background on clients. Be prepared to talk about the clients you represent. You should understand what it feels like to experience the problem you solve and be prepared to pass along the lessons you’ve learned from watching your clients go through the experience.
- Typical client problems. Inevitably, you’ll get asked about root causes of the problems you solve. Be ready to pontificate about why the problem happens, what can be done to prevent it, and how to avoid it. You’re an expert. Be ready to dispense some expertise. Don’t look like a deer in headlights the first time you get asked.
- Ideal prospects. Be ready to specifically describe the person you can help. Be ready to answer the question “Who should I refer to you?” when it comes up. Don’t expect the question at the first meeting, but don’t be surprised if it happens. The answer should be filled with passion and excitement for the opportunity to help those experiencing the problem you can solve. Practice your answers. Be prepared.
You should also prepare a series of questions. Here are some suggestions.
Questions about Your Lunch Buddy
Be well prepared to ask about your lunch partner’s interests at work and outside the office.
- What gets him excited about what he does?
- What drives him crazy?
- How did he first get interested in the work?
- What are his favorite kinds of projects?
- Who are his favorite types of clients?
- What makes the ideal referral for his business?
- What are the key frustrations in his business?
- What’s a big win look like in his world?
Questions about Everything Else
Most importantly, you should have a huge list of questions prepared to ask at your first meeting. In fact, questions are the key to making the meeting flow smoothly.
- General questions: You’ll need to develop some general questions you can ask of anyone (How long have you lived in the area? Where’s your office located? etc.). You should have enough questions to keep the conversation going for at least an hour. Of course, you probably won’t need all of your material, but it’s better to go into the meeting with more questions than you can use.
- Profession-related questions: Build a list of questions specific to each type of professional you’ll be meeting. Obviously, you’ll have different questions for mental health professionals than you’ll have for attorneys. Clergy and accountants get their own set of questions as well. Think through the way your work interrelates with each profession and be prepared to inquire in those areas. Look for issues that are of common concern and be ready to learn more about how other professionals relate to the problems from their perspective.
Preparation is the key to these lunches. Do the work now, and you’ll breeze through your networking meetings and actually have a great time.