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Add carefully selected stories to your business-networking toolbox

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From the time we're toddlers pleading with a parent to “tell me a story,” through our Netflixing adult years until the day we leave this Earth, we love hearing stories.

Why not add stories to your business networking toolbox?

Typically, networkers give elevator speeches, or 30-second commercials. These sound bites help create connections, build relationships and convey what we do. Often we're networking while competing with the buzz of a roomful of businesspeople and hors d'oeuvres for our listeners' attention.

Recently, as I was getting ready to leave the dentist's office after an early-morning appointment, the new hygienist asked if I was heading off to work next.

I didn't think this was the time or place for a business-speak "commercial." So I muttered a one-size-fits-all reply, "Oh, yeah. Busy day ahead." I left the office kicking myself for missing an unplanned opportunity to network, to tell someone what I do and to learn a bit about someone else. And yet, I didn't feel that saddling up my trusty ol' commercial would have been appropriate.

I could have told her a story. All stories, from Aesop's fables to the latest blockbuster, have three basic components: Characters, conflict and resolution.

Your business stories will have the same three parts. The characters are you and your customers. The conflict is a problem customers hired you to fix (or opportunity you helped them capture). The resolution is the result — problem solved! Opportunity taken!

You have as many stories as customers. As with Aesop's fables, each story imparts a message — intended, implied or unintended — as in the following exchange that actually occurred.

Before my presentation on "Networking: Best Practices" at a local business association, I was networking to get to know the association's members. I approached a man who was walking on crutches. I said, "I hope you heal soon."

He replied, "I'm the manager at ________ Gym and I got a MRSA infection. It didn't heal properly, so I had to have a chunk of my foot cut out."

You can bet your 15-pound dumbbells that I'm not going to visit that gym or refer anyone to it.

Carefully select stories for networking. Avoid stories that might come across as bragging (use third-party testimonies instead). Steer clear of lightning-rod topics, revealing clients' personal information, complaining about the hors d'oeuvres or committing other breaches of professional etiquette.

People assume that anyone who's less than businesslike with one person will be less than businesslike with everybody … including the potential clients they were considering referring for business.

Let's cut back to the earlier missed opportunity when the hygienist asked me, "Are you going to work next?" Instead of the lame reply I gave before, I'll tell her a story that features characters, a problem and a resolution.

Here's my second take with the hygienist: "I'm a business mentor at SCORE. I'm going to meet with a business owner this morning. He wants to expand his market share. We'll sit down together and evaluate ways to attract more customers and keep the customers he has."

Networking is a give-and-take dance. Listen. Talk. Listen. Talk. As we're listening to other people's commercials and stories, we can focus on finding ways to encourage and help them. Depending on the circumstances, one can network using a trusty workhorse of a 30-second commercial or a networker can tell a story.

Sharing stories is fun and creative for the teller. I'd wager that hearing stories is enjoyable and memorable for listeners who are expecting to hear traditional elevator pitches or 30-second commercials.

Get additional networking mileage out of your stories by using them in social media.

What's your story?

Beth Fowler, a York SCORE volunteer business mentor, coordinates the organization's speakers bureau to present business topics to local organizations. Find SCORE chapters at Fowler is also an accredited home stager and proprietor of Home Presentation LLC.

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