Far too often, people are dead wrong about networking. I asked one professional attending a networking event what he hoped to achieve. He replied, “I’m going to win business!” That’s pretty aggressive—even for me.

Whether your ultimate networking objective is to win the account, vie for the position, or earn the plum assignment, I recommend you apply what I call the networking principle of nudge in order to dramatically increase your success.

I’m talking about a series of small agreements, not one colossal, earth-shattering, cosmic “YES!” People often can be persuaded most effectively when shepherded along easily, not yanked through the streets.

A great example comes from my sister-in-law’s Golden doodle, Lucky.

At one family gathering in her home, Lucky was particularly affectionate. He kept rubbing against me, looking for attention, which I happily gave him. After a few minutes, I realized I was no longer in the living room but in the kitchen. When I mentioned my surprise at the change of venue, my sister-in-law replied matter-of-factly: “He does that all the time. He brought you out here; this is where we keep his treats.”

Don Karn

Ah, the power of nudge. You need to know where you’re headed and then nudge your relationships in that direction. Here are some examples of networking nudge:
Yes, I want to spend time chatting with this person.
Yes, I will respond to interesting questions.
Yes, I will engage in a give-and-take conversation.
Yes, I will share information about my company and myself.
Yes, I will let my defenses down.
Yes, I will share contact information.
Yes, I will agree to a follow-up conversation.

Now, here are three ideas to nudge your networking success forward:

  1. Set realistic minimum/maximum networking objectives. Telling yourself you’re going to leave a networking event with business in hand is a surefire way to set yourself up for failure. As a result, you may be reluctant to pursue future networking opportunities. Instead, set minimum and maximum success objectives for each event. A minimum might be, “I’m going to meet and capture contact information from three people.” A maximum could be: “I’m going to schedule two follow-up face-to-face meetings.” These are small but important milestones for networking success.

  2. Use self-deprecating humor. Crucial to networking success is when the other person thinks, “Yes, I want to spend a few minutes speaking with this person.” The fastest approach to nudge your way toward this first milestone is to display a sense of humor—preferably self-deprecating humor. Irish author Oscar Wilde liked to say, “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a word of what I am saying.” Who wouldn’t want to spend a few minutes speaking with Oscar Wilde?

    Here’s another example of self-deprecating humor: “We in the legal department are upset about the new regulations. We don’t have time to comb through pages and pages of obfuscating and ambiguous language. As you know, we’re already too busy creating that sort of documentation ourselves.”

    We don’t like people who poke fun at others, but we love it when people make fun of themselves. It demonstrates they are confident, relaxed, and don’t take themselves too seriously.

  3. Ask better questions. “So, how are things?” Head bob. “Good.” “How are you?” Head tilt. “Busy.” Yikes! I can’t do much with that. Insipid conversations like these have me running to the nearest bar for a Grey Goose martini. Try asking more interesting questions that may lead to actual dialog. Take “Where are you from?” When you ask this simple, non-threatening question, people respond with their company, their position or where they live. Regardless, it provides you with information you can build on. “What company are representing?” Company XYZ. “Great company! What do you like best about working with them?” “Where are you from?” Pennsylvania. “Interesting. How did a guy from Pennsylvania end up in California?” That will be a story.

Another favorite: “What do you do for fun?” You’ll receive some pretty interesting responses to that one. Then your follow-up can always be: “How did you get interested in that?” People love to talk about what they love doing, be it fly-fishing or geocaching. And the phenomenal aspect of human nature is that when they are talking, they find you fascinating.

You also can opt for more sophisticated questions: “How do the new federal regulations impact your business?” “How is your company handling the surge in interest?” “What do you like most about your business?”

Always avoid the controversial: “What’s your position on Roe v. Wade?” This is a networking opportunity, not a Supreme Court confirmation interview. Also avoid sounding like a member of the Spanish inquisition by softening your questions with permission requests using such statements as “May I ask ...” or “If I may ...”

And, of course, you can always rely on the time-honored FORM model. Ask about a person’s family, occupation, recreational activities, and motivation for attending the event. This provides natural nudges to next steps.

Many well-intentioned, otherwise capable professionals diminish their networking effectiveness by swinging for the long ball. They meet a person at an event, and immediately their mind reels: I have to get the business! I have to get the business!

No, you don’t. You just need to have a conversation. You also must be genuinely interested in the other person. Be present and respond to what’s happening in the moment. Setting realistic goals, using self-deprecating humor, and asking solid questions can nudge your networking success.

MARK RODGERS is a bestselling author, award-winning speaker and sought-after consultant who helps professionals hear yes, faster—dramatically accelerating sales and marketing results. Follow him on Twitter @Mark_Speaks.