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Maybe the following is familiar: You arrive at a networking cocktail hour in hopes of meeting some cool people relevant to your career. You grab a drink and stand off to the corner, scanning the room but recognize no one.
After a few moments of sipping your drink, you decide to introduce yourself to the guy next to you and you each take turns talking about your jobs. One of you says you’re heading to the bathroom and soon you’re back by yourself in the corner.
You’ll never be able to completely avoid awkward social situations, but you can definitely start reducing them by adopting some new techniques.
Influencers founder Jon Levy was able to overcome a natural tendency toward being shy to becoming the head of an eclectic network of professionals that includes Nobel laureates, Grammy-winning musicians, and Olympic medalists. He runs TED Talk-like “salons” and dinner parties at his Manhattan apartment with the intention of connection interesting people who otherwise never would have met.
Here are some of Levy’s top tips for building better relationships by avoiding cringe-worthy moments.
Have something to talk about other than your job.
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Most people just aren’t interesting in the way they communicate, Levy says. It’s why he has his dinner guests spend the majority of the evening refraining from discussing any aspect of their occupation. He encourages Salon guests to do the same, so that they can get to know each other personally.
When you meet someone new, skip the mindless back and forth about going through your CV or talking about the weather, and start a real conversation you’d have with a friend. If that prospect makes you nervous, have a topic ready to start talking about, Levy says.
“I always have a story of something I’ve been doing recently or a book that I’ve been reading,” he says.
Create a unique memory with your new acquaintance.
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Even those with terrible emotional intelligence can tell when someone has forgotten who they are, despite speaking with them several times. And while that may have happened to you, you’ve probably been guilty of it as well.
Rahzel, former member of The Roots and beatboxing legend, is a member of Levy’s Influencers group and says that Levy’s memory has consistently impressed him.
Levy says that he doesn’t have any special gift, but rather deliberately creates situations that will help him remember names and faces. “For the most part our memory is visual, and it works based on novelty for something to really stick out,” he says. “If there’s somebody I meet that I really want to connect with, I try to create a moment that’s memorable and that can serve as tradition.”
Maybe that means taking a shot of tequila with your new acquaintance, or sending a selfie to someone you discover to be a mutual friend.
Tell a story that is clear and compelling.
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Don’t get caught up in tangents that cause the other person’s eyes to glaze over and stop listening to you.
When you tell a story, make sure it has a clear point and a punch line, whether it’s a takeaway or a joke. The best way to be memorable is through good storytelling.
Don’t impose yourself on others.
“One of the fundamental mistakes I made at the beginning was thinking that people enjoyed all the things I liked,” Levy says.
He would take an “older sibling” approach and try to get his introverted connections to behave like him, an extrovert. For example, if he tried to get a shy person to retell a story he enjoyed in front of a large crowd, he ended up putting that person into an incredibly uncomfortable situation.
This also applies to bringing people together. Ask each for permission before introducing them.
Just be aware that it’s not your job to get people to behave a certain way.
Don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself.
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There’s no need to act ridiculous, but you need to be courageous if you’re going to develop relationships with new people.
Speaking about himself, Levy says, “I think the only people who would probably embarrass themselves more over time are people who are far, far, far more successful. Like the [Virgin Group chairman Richard] Bransons of the world.”
There are going to be times when you’re not going to appear as funny or impressive as you’d like, but as with anything else, you should make note of how your social interactions failed and improve the next time.
Keep meetings brief.
If you’re going to meet a professional contact in person for lunch, coffee, or a drink, don’t let the meeting run long, until you run out of things to talk about.
There’s no need to let an introductory meeting with a new connection last longer than 45 minutes, Levy says. The ideal is probably a half hour.
“It’s better to leave the conversation having something to talk about and feeling like you need to connect again rather than feeling that the energy’s died,” Levy says.
End conversations gracefully.
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“I used to be absolutely awful, really awkward, at ending conversations,” Levy says, laughing. “The last moments of a conversation will define how people remember you, so you want to get really good at a solid ending,” instead of being rudely (or strangely) abrupt.
Over the phone, wait for a lull in the conversation and then give an indication that you need to be excused for something else or are happy with how the conversation went. Tell them it was a pleasure speaking with them and that you’ll make sure to follow up on certain points.
In person, Levy says he always takes an extra beat to make eye contact with the person he’s finished speaking with so that it doesn’t seem as if he’s running away.