How I Learned to Love Networking


I grab a Sharpie and scrawl my name down on the red and white sticker. As I decide where to place it (upper chest? torso? on the shirt, or the blazer?), I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and try to stifle a groan. I then begrudgingly crawl toward the table of bottles, hoping to God it’s open bar, and prepare to ease that crushing sense of anxiety with some booze.

Sound familiar?

Maybe you’re here to find a job, or change career paths by identifying a mentor. Perhaps you’re seeking a willing audience to pitch your latest idea to. Or maybe you’re looking to learn a new skill or approach to a problem you have in your company. In any case, you’re looking to fulfill a goal, and you are determined to get past the cringe phase, connect with the right people, and nab some business cards that can help you achieve said goal.

Let me tell you now: you’ve got it all wrong.

The Necessity of Networking and the Desire to Change

I used to walk into a networking event seeking out smart people that wanted to hire other smart people. I was determined to encounter this category of people as quickly as possible, and not waste too much time on anything that didn’t help me get there. And it made me hate networking because there was so much pressure for my time to be spent wisely and yield results that night (or in follow-up the next day). I really loathed these events where small-talk was a must to get to my end result.

But small-talk, new connections, and investing time in others is a necessary cost for business success. After all, the point of networking is to meet new people that can help us when those we already know can’t meet all of our needs. How can we do that if not by forcing ourselves through the awkwardness of a packed ballroom of strangers?

The Answer: Move from a self-focused mindset and actually be open to real connections.

Now, I know this sounds scary – opening up to complete strangers? And how can we still accomplish those goals that brought us to these sterile meeting rooms and plastic wine cups in the first place?

Don’t worry. Here comes the wisdom drop.

The Three Rules of Genuine Connection-Making

1 — Rather than stressing about meeting a goal, focus on meeting a person or group of people.

When I networked in the traditional manner, I would walk into a room cold. No, not like I’d forgotten my jacket during one of San Francisco’s mercurial temperature changes. Cold as in, I wasn’t sure who was there, if there were multiple speakers, if there was a theme…I would simply walk in and get to work.

Now, the way I’ve articulated this makes me vulnerable to criticism – I sound pretty clueless. But really, force yourself to consider this: When was the last time you spent the evening prior stooped in front of your laptop researching the event? Checking out the attendee list? Reading the synopsis so diligently copy-edited by the event organizer?

Chances are, you looked at this information weeks before, decided to sign up, and never checked it again. But who goes to class unprepared?

When you pay $50 for a ticket (or even when you don’t) and invest 2–3 hours of your time, do yourself the favor of making it worthwhile by taking 20 minutes to check out who might be there. Target a few interesting individuals and learn a little about them. And make an effort to meet these folks in the warm room. Even if you don’t meet them (though with effort, you will), you’ll have familiar faces there, waiting to welcome you. It’s kind of fun, not to mention super helpful in gaining confidence and calm.

2 — Instead of giving a pitch, tell an interesting story. Better yet: listen to someone else’s story, and ask for more insight about a certain aspect.

Once I had my name tag on and some pinot gris in my plasticware, I would spend a couple minutes hanging on the side of the room, eying the other networkers, and rehearsing my lines in my head. “So what brings you to [insert name of event]?…Oh, great, so do you work nearby?…Oh that’s fantastic, how’s business?…That’s great, are you expanding?”

Don’t let my pitch deceive you. Though these phrases end with question marks, this is definitely me vetting you to figure out how much time to spend on our chat. If you don’t work nearby and in an industry that coincides with my expertise, I may not be able to do business with you. If business isn’t good and your company isn’t growing, you’re probably not hiring, and I can’t sell to you.

Whether you’re rehearsing questions or your elevator pitch on why your resume/idea/challenge is compelling, you’re rehearsing.

Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t work on your public speaking or other soft skills. These are always areas worth investment. I’m pointing out to you the value of genuinely sharing a part of your background – even if it’s a funny story or something interesting you noticed in the news. Lots of people were interested in the fact that I was really interested in UX, civic responsibility, and baking when I introduced myself at huge HR events. Even the “suits” like meeting people with multiple interests. And now that I’m a full-time UX Designer, you’d be surprised to learn how many creatives are interested in my prior career in recruiting, my love for college sports, and my appreciation for whiskey.

Genuine connection-making means you need to be open in sharing different parts of yourself and your thought process so that people can get a real sense of who you are, rather than just what you need. If they know you, they’re more likely to help you, because they’ve started to build a real relationship with you.

Of particular note to those of us still building our experience (self included), there’s something to be said for giving of yourself before asking for something. Even when you’re still building, there’s a lot you can give, but the one that everyone can offer is their true, vested attention.

That means really listening, and hearing the other person. So lucky you! If you’re growing, you have an easy card to play: all you have to do is listen. Ask caring, thoughtful, intelligent, mindful questions. And try to learn something from them.

3 — Have a plan for high-quality, intentional follow-up.

Before you get really excited about being “off the hook” and just needing to be interested in everybody but yourself, there is a bit of a catch.

All this stuff is supposed to help you achieve the goal that prompted you to put that name tag on in the first place. So you do still have to advocate for yourself, or you’ll never get anything done. You have to be disciplined in follow-up for this stuff to get results.

When you buy your ticket for the event, set three calendar events or reminders:

1. For the date and time of the event. (My hope is you’re already doing this.)
2. For the evening before the event, so that you remember to do your research.
3. For your lunch hour on the day following the event, so that you take the time you need to compose well-written follow-up emails to those interesting people you talked to.

Then actually write those emails. And make sure you write the email that would prompt you to respond, were you receiving it. Be honest with yourself.

Does, “Hey, thanks for talking with me last night! I really appreciated your time. Perhaps we could follow up over coffee? Let me know!” really compel you to reply?

Probably not, if you’re busy like most people. Also, if you’re like most people and met several individuals at the event, you won’t be able to discern who this person is.

So be sure to include the following details in your follow-ups in whatever order your choose:

1. What did you really latch onto when chatting with them? This not only shows your great attention for detail and active listening skills, it shows that you really took something from the conversation. People like others who listen to them. Bonus: In case they don’t remember you, this helps jog their memory.

2. Kill the “I appreciated your time” line and replace it with something specific. Was it a unique perspective that intrigued you? Interesting knowledge? A new way of thinking? A challenge for you to undertake? Again, get specific.

3. Why are you asking them for coffee? I doubt it’s because you’d like to talk about their preference between French press and pour-over. Tell them what you want to discuss. It will help them prepare for their next conversation with you. And in the disappointing instance they cannot take you up on the offer, they can point you to other helpful resources.

4. They’re never “free for coffee” – so tell them when you’re available. It takes more energy for them to come up with a time to meet when they see a packed calendar with limited open slots. Throwing out 2 or 3 dates and times that are open for you may seem demanding, but it’s actually helpful to get the ball rolling on their end.

5. Keep the enthusiasm. I’m not here to box you in on your follow-up. Still stay energetic and engaged in your day-after letters! People enjoy collaborating with those that are stoked to get to work.

Still Don’t Believe Me?

Here’s the meta part of why networking not only sucks, but is useless when done the traditional way. It’s akin to the spotlight effect, which basically says that everyone is so busy worrying about what they wear (or how they talk, or any other self-conscious anxiety), that we don’t actually pay attention to each other’s eccentricities.

Essentially, we’re so consumed with the “spotlight” we imagine falling on that weird scar or chipped tooth, that all our attention is focused inward and we don’t actually notice anyone else’s moles or blemishes. With networking, it’s the same thing: if I’m so focused on my goal to sell my product to you, I’m not going to actually listen when you’re asking me to help you find a job. In vice-versa, you’re so focused on finding your next position, you’re not hearing a single word about my product.

We are so one-track-minded that no one is getting anything out of networking anymore. (Besides crumpled stacks of business cards sitting atop our nightstands.)

So what if we applied that infamous Silicon Valley disruption mentality to our in-person interactions and completely changed the game? What if, instead of trying to achieve a quota, we actually offered what everyone is looking for in the first place, and engaged in real connections?

As a recruiter in a prior life — with a very clear goal to meet top talent and hiring executives— I can tell you personally that when I focused on people, my odds were much better that I’d find someone that could help me. It was also much less nerve-wracking than the traditional form of networking (see: the first paragraph of this post).

When we focus on each other instead of our needs, we are more likely to actually hear and be heard. This is positive not only because of what I call “the warm fuzzies effect”, but because those connections are more apt to respond “Yes” when we ask for that follow-up coffee. They recall that we actually cared about what they were saying.

So give it a shot. Do the structured work before and after the event, so that you can actually embrace the room of awesome people you have the opportunity to talk to.

I Lied to You.

It’s true.

I’m sorry.

The title of this post is a complete misnomer.

I still hate networking.

But I love Genuine Connection-Making.

I do hope you’ll forgive me for tricking you just a bit so that I could share my perspective with you.

It is true, though, that reframing “Networking” as a genuine chance to meet new, intelligent, passionate people has been momentous for me. I’ve encountered some pretty cool folks by resisting the urge to bulldoze through a crowd. Some of those cool folks have been on my researched target list, and some have been surprises. Which brings me to my last point.

Genuine Connection-Making means you’re really open. It means making time for people and being gracious and kind. Because sometimes the person who doesn’t seem to be able to help you has something to say. Maybe they can just make you laugh and ease your nerves. Or they work in a seemingly unrelated area but have some analogous insight that prompts a new approach to your problem-solving. Perhaps they don’t know anything about your field or need, but their partner, best friend, or investor does. But you’ll never figure that out if you don’t listen and follow-up.

So give it a go. You’d be surprised what (and who) you might find.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to the talented recruiters I’ve worked with that showed me the way to Genuine Connection-Making. Kudos to Tradecraft for encouraging me to share my experience. And a special thanks to Erin Wilson who visited Tradecraft HQ last week, and espoused a similar attitude in his own hiring practices.

If you have any questions, you are welcome to comment or contact me directly. I will respond within three business days.

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