Performing with The Theo Jackson Quartet (c) Benjamin Amure [http://www.benjaminamure.com]

5 things a career in jazz taught me about networking

Death of a snake oil salesman

Building a network is no easy feat. It involves a number of different elements, from the knowledge of your business to your presentation, conversational skills, and personal brand. There are no hard-and-fast rules for how to go about building a network as everyone you meet is different, every culture is different, and every one of us has a different reason for focusing on networking.

For a number of years I worked as a professional jazz musician, travelling, living and working between Sydney, Shanghai and, most prominently, London. The beauty of moving around was that the networking ideas I tried out in Sydney were tested and elaborated upon in Shanghai, and again in London, a city with an enormous amount of talented people all trying to get themselves ahead. While it’s hard to pin down an accurate networking playbook, there are a few things to keep in mind as you put yourself out there and network your way towards achieving your goals.

1. People aren’t baseball cards

I’m often told by friends and colleagues that they find networking to be inherently superficial or fake. They steer clear of anything remotely self-promotional for fear of being seen as something of a snake oil salesman; the kind of person who’s main networking metric is HPM (handshakes per minute), who collects connections like baseball cards, and who has a fresh deck of business cards printed up every month. It’s all about slinging jargon and being sure to touch people on the shoulder to establish rapport. They may meet a staggering amount of people in an evening, you may even notice that everyone knows their name, but there’s one problem.

This cold, calculated approach to networking doesn’t actually achieve what great networking sets out to do – build and nurture meaningful relationships.

How often do strangers add you on LinkedIn only to sit dormant in your list of ‘connections’? Or reach out with an automated message or one pulled from a template? Seemingly comfortable with the burning irony, these ‘connections’ never make any effort to actually connect. I’m sure you know from your own experiences that this approach rarely enamours you with your new contact, and would hardly have you excited to see them again.

Great networking is personal. Take the time to get to know people, ask questions and be engaged. Find out what makes them tick, because the chances are that you are both driven by similar values or goals. When you part ways, you should feel like you’ve done a lot more than just shaking a hand, laughing at a joke or leaving a business card — you’ll feel like you’ve really made a connection.

Only once you start making genuine connections will you start to see results. Ask questions, dig deeper and search for common ground. Don’t follow the snake oil salesmen.

It’s not about shaking every hand in the room, it’s about making a handful of people (or even one person!) feel like they really know you.

2. It’s a slow burn

Despite its great virtue, patience can be incredibly difficult to put into practice. Speaking for myself, I’m always trying to move forward, learn new things, do as much as possible. Sometimes I feel like I want it all yesterday and it frustrates me when it doesn’t happen like that (and it almost never does!). I try to practice patience.

When I first arrived in London I didn’t have a single contact. What I did have was my double bass and a time limit — the former a means to get the work done, the latter a very helpful push to get things going ASAP. I started going out to the late night jam sessions, throwing my hat in the ring for a chance to play, then making a point of following up with those I had shared the stage with.

I did this every night for ten months.

Ten months waiting for a break or even a phone call. You may have heard people say that when you’re starting to feel like you can’t keep at it any more, or when you’re in deeper than you can handle, that’s when you’re on the verge of something great. They’re not lying. It was hard work keeping all of this going and with the stress, lack of sleep, and too much time spent in that limbo between my expectations and reality, I was at my wit’s end. But one day someone mentioned me to someone else, then they mentioned me to someone else. One gig came in, then another. By the end of the month I had a handful of gigs lined up. Then the scales just tipped.

Building a network is a slow burn. You enter into it with ambition, purpose and determination but you need to manage yourself and your expectations. Relationships need to be made but they also need to be nurtured, and that takes time. So many people come and go, and it’s the ones who hang in who see the results.

Don’t burn out – burn slow so that you can build something with longevity and meaning.

3. Help others to help yourself

You’re probably building a network because you’re looking for a job. Maybe you’ve got a new product on the way and you’re trying to cultivate word of mouth and build a community around it before it launches. Maybe you’re trying to find some collaborators, and hitting every conference or networking event in town.

Whatever you’re reason, you’ve got a goal, a vision, and have set out to make it happen. But, once again, don’t follow the snake oil salesmen. The worst networkers talk at people, they don’t listen, and they definitely don’t try to help those around them. Remember that everyone you meet – everyone – has their own goals, their own problems and will gravitate towards those that can help them.

So don’t be selfish.

Look for opportunities to offer advice or support, pay compliments, or connect someone to an existing contact who might help them achieve their goals. Not only will you bond with them but it will make you feel good. And it goes both ways.

Human psychology suggests that once someone had helped you once they’re more likely to help you again. So ask questions. Give people an opportunity to help you out, because what might start as a piece of advice may become a referral, a job or a devoted fan for your new product.

Relationships are built on give and take, but try to focus on the giving. That way you won’t need to take, only receive.

4. Be interested because you are

This ties into my first point, so I’ll make it short.

If you need to feign interest in someone or something to build your network, you’re probably in the wrong business.

Do something you love, meet the people who love it, talk to them about how much you love it. It’s not about faking it ‘til you make it.

5. Get involved

This last point comes from a little mantra of mine that was influenced by the late, great pianist Bill Evans describing the equally late, great bass player Scott Lafaro. When rooming together on tour, Bill was struck by the focus and purpose with which Scott would ‘just pick up his bass and get involved.’ To me this meant getting involved with the instrument, the music, the technique, the theory – to be completely involved and absorbed with the task at hand.

How does this apply to networking?

When you throw yourself into the act of building a network, you’re actually building a community. Or joining an existing one. To again drive home the importance of building meaningful relationships, it’s integral that you not only shake the hand of everyone in the room but be a part of the community as a whole. Get involved with the people, the culture, and the work. Contribute and give back, lead discussion, ask questions and make an impact. Like relationships, communities and cultures need to be built and nurtured.

Don’t sit on the sidelines. Get in there and make a difference. Get involved.


Building a really terrific network is no easy feat. It requires purpose and determination, empathy and selflessness, and a commitment to building something worthwhile.

The relationships you make can support you in sickness and in health, and that includes the sickness and health of your business. So take your time to develop positive relationships with the right people, the kind of people who will be there for you, refer you for a job or rally around a product.

Don’t fake it – be real, be yourself and give it everything you’ve got. If you’re doing it right, it’ll come back to you in spades.


Thanks for reading!

Feel free to get in touch by leaving a comment below or emailing me at hellohuntly@gmail.com