When delivering workshops about business networking, an inquiry that I often get from the female participants is, “What if I don’t do sports?”.
In other words, since they don’t follow college or professional sports, how can these women find a small talk entry point when the conversation takes that direction? You see, the professional services sector is still predominantly men, leaving us women in the minority at networking events, and setting the stage for football, hockey and other male-dominated topicality to quickly become the default conversational theme. And once it goes there, we feel like we’re growing smaller and smaller, as the men settle into the conversation in quite the way they would settle into an armchair to watch the game.
Whether they realize it or not, men are actively shutting women out of business opportunities when they choose not to be mindful about gender neutrality in the small talk they engage in. This is not likely to change either, which means that businesswomen need to find creative ways to redirect the conversation and get noticed. When I head out to a networking event, I’m armed with conversation-directing techniques for almost any sports scenario that gets pitched my way. Here are some useful ways for YOU to turn sports chat into a game where everyone wins.
The Eyes Have It
When you find yourself engaged with a group in conversation, and the sports chat takes hold, check out all of the eyes. The odds are you’ll find the one man who doesn’t like sports. He’ll be the one with that glazed-over look in his eyes, perhaps even a little disengaged or uncomfortable. Begin a separate conversation with him, and you’re off-and-running.
Not From Around Here?
If you discover that one of the men is speaking about a favorite team that isn’t a local one, often this means it’s his hometown team. This is your cue to slant the conversation to where he grew up. If it turns out you were wrong, there may still be an interesting story behind the reason it’s his favorite team. Inquire about it, and get him talking to you. Once you have his attention, you’re in control of where the conversation turns to business.
Stay Indirectly On-Topic
Realize that many sports fans enjoy being athletic themselves, and use this to your advantage in steering the conversation. Tell him that you’re not much of a sports spectator, but that you like rowing, biking, hiking, rock climbing, skiing….whatever your athletic interests happen to be. Then ask him about his favorite athletic activities. This can be a clever way to redirect the conversation to related topics like travel and dining. Now the sports are out of the picture, and authentic networking can begin.
Know What They Know
To connect with businessmen who are preoccupied with professional sports, you don’t need to be a sports buff yourself. Simply scan the Mets & Yankees (or Giants & Jets) box scores every few days, just to gain a sense of what’s going on. It also goes a long way to be privy to who’s having great seasons in the major sporting leagues (baseball, football, basketball). By not remaining totally ignorant, you can earn yourself entry into most sports conversations without committing more than a few minutes each week to research.
Once You’re On Base
When you’ve managed to penetrate the sports talk and convert strangers into business contacts, be sure to notate their key sports preferences, especially if they are obsessive. This will provide you with things to say to them each time you see them in the future. You can also be thoughtfully clever by sending them a note when their team makes the playoffs! But remember: This is not to be taken as an opening to talk about your kid’s little league team and how amazing she is. Every mother thinks her kid is amazing. Your job is to make your new contact feel remembered, and to feel proud of yourself for accomplishing what so many women in business were stumped by!
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