Some people make a point of being quirky and memorable at networking events. What do you do? “I guide people through the jungle.” What do you do? “I peel onions.”
This approach certainly has its merits. People are more interested in what you have to say if you are fun and entertaining. Plus, using analogies to explain abstract concepts may help them to understand what you do better. Yet, even the most brilliant elevator pitches fall on deaf ears 99% of the time. Why? If you make your pitch too broad, the other person will probably already know several people with the same specialty. On the other hand, if you make it very specific, most people will think they have no need for your expertise.
The best advice I have ever heard about networking came from a friend who is an IT entrepreneur. He told me that he learned early on that, “He who talks first loses.” As this friend opened his start-up and began networking, he noticed that he created many more actual paying clients by letting the other person speak first. After listening, he would then tailor his description of his own services so as to match the likely needs of the other person. He didn’t try to “sell” them on his company; rather, he just described the business in such a way that the other person would see the obvious synergies and start asking questions. This generated lots of leads and ultimately paying clients. Of course, sometimes there would be no match for his services, in which case, he would politely but quickly move on to someone else.
This is selling 101: (1) listen first; (2) then tailor your pitch to the client’s needs. However, it is shockingly rare for people, even professional business developers, to do this. I have heard many corporate counsel complain about pitches from Am Law 100 firms that spent too much time boasting about the merits of the firm, rather than focusing on the specific needs of the client. (This is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say that we shouldn’t feel badly for making this kind of mistake, because most people do. Though the ubiquitous nature of this error creates a great opportunity to stand out, simply by listening better and responding to what we hear.)
Assuming that you accept the premise that it’s better to listen first, before trying to sell your services, now what about implementation? What do you do at a networking event when someone beats you to the punch, and asks the inevitable, “What do you do?” You can always respond simply with, “Why don’t you tell me first?” Nearly everyone likes talking about themselves, and few people will need further encouragement.