Human Communication 101: Making Networking Calls Less Terrible

I really hate making phone calls. It’s one of my least favorite things to do, right after stapling a finger and macing myself in the face. Phone calls for the sake of networking just make the whole situation more awkward and stressful. However! With a little bit of preparation and practice, networking phone calls aren’t so bad: they can even be engaging, or, dare I say it, fun!

Let’s start with the basics: why do you want to talk to this person? There’s something about them that interests you enough to want to reach out. You want to know more about it. Maybe you even want a job at this person’s company. (More on this later.)

So do some research on them. LinkedIn will tell you a lot: what was their major in college? Have they been in the same industry for their entire career, or have they moved around? How long have they been at their current company?

(Brief digression about LinkedIn: I know everyone’s freaked out that LinkedIn notifies someone if you’ve been looking at their profile. But that’s a good thing! If the person you’re calling knows you’ve been researching them, they’ll know you’ve put effort into this call and that you value their time. It’s basically the equivalent of running into your professor late at night while you’re carrying a stack of books: you get to show you’re working hard before you’ve even handed anything in.)

After researching, make a list of everything you want to know that this person can tell you about. Come up with a list of around six to ten solid questions based on what you’ve learned from researching them (“I notice you changed your focus from consumer goods to technology a few years ago: can you explain your decision-making process?”) as well as questions you have about your own situation (“I’m trying to decide whether or not to take some time off before going to grad school: do you have any insight?”), as appropriate. And congratulations! You’ve just worked out a rough framework for the conversation. No more scary ambiguity!

Now it’s time for the phone call itself. Find a quiet place (not Willets) with good cell reception (not Mertz), or better yet, use a landline. Have a computer nearby in case the person who you’re calling mentions something you need to look up, and have a pen and paper ready to jot down more questions as the call goes on.

And here’s the wonderful thing you’ll discover as you start doing networking calls: people love talking about themselves. You might barely spit out a “How do you do” before they launch into their life story. Listen carefully to what they say, take notes, and think of questions to ask once they come up for air. Not everyone you call will be very effusive: some people will rely on you to direct the conversation. But hey! That’s why you came up with those questions beforehand.

A note on questions: questions don’t have to be questions. You can respond to things the other person has said with vague affirming statements like, “Wow, that sounds really interesting!” or “I never realized your profession involves so much face time with the client.” It’s best if your questions can jump off of something they’ve already mentioned (“You said you were on a business trip to Germany: do you get to travel a lot for your job?”), but if you’re not sure how to keep the conversation going organically, use one of the questions you came up with ahead of time.

After a sufficient amount of back and forth, you might start to think about popping the question: “Will you hire me?!” But not so fast! This is tricky business. There’s a fine line between being direct and being pushy, so tact is key. If the conversation has gone well and if you are very serious about applying to this company, you can make a careful inquiry. I’ll give you my line, best used at the end of a conversation:

“From talking to you, I realize that the kind of work you’re doing at [company] is exactly the kind of work I’m looking to do after graduation. How would you recommend I go about applying for a job at your company?”

This lets the person you’re talking to know you’re interested in their company without demanding a job from them outright. Worst case scenario, they’ll tell you to check out the company website. Not very helpful, but no hard feelings. But hopefully, directly showing your interest could open the door up for very useful tips. Maybe they’ll talk about particular skills the company is looking for in cover letters. If they like you a lot, they might even offer to give you advice on your resume or put in a good word for you with Human Resources.

Do your best to set aside at least an hour for the conversation. Some calls will peter out after barely 10 minutes, but if you’re 45 minutes in and it’s going really well with no signs of stopping, you don’t want to call it off because you made plans for Pasta Bar that evening. And then, of course, send a thank you email the next day.

That’s all for this week–send any more questions you have to Until next time!

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