Make networking easier with a more specific elevator pitch

“Willing to do anything” is a badge of honor among the professionally itinerant. It’s a strength and also an affliction, most commonly found in grad students, young professionals, and those suffering from career wanderlust. What it means for your career prospects and skills development depends on your own path. That might be the subject of another post.

Today I’m interested in what it means for your networking and job hunting. Say you’re searching for a summer internship or your next job. You’ve met someone who’s well-connected and willing to help. He asks the obvious question: “What are you looking for?” You freeze. You should have a quick pitch ready to go, but will it be good enough?

The most common mistake I’ve seen in these quick pitches is to be too general. Grad students are the worst at this (no offense, I was there myself once). You have a general skill set and you really are willing to do anything! Maybe you’ve got some experience in M&E but you’d be happy to learn what you need for another role, or you’ve worked in Ghana but would be interested in another region. You know that there are limited positions out there, and you don’t want to rule any of them out. Hell, you’ll be happy just to be employed. So the general thrust of your pitch is to say, “I will take whatever you’ve got!”

The problem with this? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. He has a mental contact list with dozens or even hundreds of entries. He might be willing to make a few connections for you, but how is he going to narrow down his list when you asked for “anything”? That’s a mentally hard thing to do. You can make it easier by giving him the filtering criteria. Then a few obvious contacts will come to mind. He’ll also be more willing to put you in touch with them, because he’ll be more confident that he won’t be wasting his contact’s time.

To improve your pitch, start with some context for what you want, narrow things down a bit, and then open it up at the end. I’ve found the following structure to be helpful for my own conversations:

Context: I’ve done A and B before, and I’d like to do C eventually…

Specific pitch: …so I’m looking for D or E right now. Any advice or contacts you have would be appreciated.

General: Of course, I’m also looking to build experience in general, if you’ve heard of other interesting opportunities.

Obviously, that’s not a script. Put it in your own words, with variation depending on whether it’s a conversation or an email. The only risk is that you miss out on a few general connections, but you’ll end up with better ones and maybe more in total anyway.

The broader principle here is to make it easier for people to help you out. (See here for more along the same lines; h/t Alanna Shaikh.)

P.S. Bonus tip: This applies to fundraising and sales as well. A pitch to “just give whatever you can” may be less effective than a specific pitch to “give $X a month” — even if the latter is too high, it provides an anchoring point and makes it easier for a potential donor to say, “No, but I could give $Y instead.”