The Problem With ‘Networking’

There’s no word in the world that makes me cringe more than ‘networking’.

All throughout our undergrads, we’re told we need to get out there and network, so we can form relationships with professionals, ideally to help us get a job someday.

So what do we do? We dress up in our fanciest suits and ties, go to these so-called ‘networking events’, and stand around timidly, nervous to approach these hot-shot executives, recruiters, and CEOs.

We then finally muster up the courage to go up to them, awkwardly introduce ourselves with no context whatsoever, shake their hand, and make some superficial comment about them or their company. And then comes the small talk — we tell them what we’re studying, what year we’re in, and maybe what we want to do after graduation. Sound familiar?

After a few short minutes, we decide we’ve had enough — and want to move on to our next ‘target’. So, we reach into our pockets, pull out our business card, and ask them if they’d like to exchange cards. We’re ecstatic when they say yes, because yay, we get to add a prominent executive’s business card to our collection!

You know what that means? Absolutely nothing.

I once went to an event and met a prominent local venture capitalist, was chatting with him after about my interest in startups, and he offered to give me his card. I sent him an email afterwards telling him about how our product could help his company, and he was extremely thankful — in his response, he offered me some career advice and said he appreciated meeting me. It was a refreshingly authentic and genuine connection.

I met him at another event a year later, and he remembered me because of that. He told me that I was the only person from that event to follow up with him afterwards.

Seriously?

We go to all these events, and meet so many amazing, high-profile people, yet all we do is add their business cards to our ‘collection.’

Does this look all too familiar? It’s because it is.

We all have stacks of business cards, likely sitting on our desks, collecting dust and doing absolutely nothing to further our learning or career trajectories.

So, how do we solve this problem?

We need to start making authentic connections with people.

The next time you to go to a networking event, research in advance who’s going to be in attendance as delegates.

And no, I don’t mean their title and what company they’re from.

Go look up their backgrounds, their stories of how they got to be where they are today, and their personal interests.

Heck, browse their Twitter feed or see if they have a Medium account, to see what they like to talk or write about.

Maybe they’re fans of the same sports team as you, are avidly passionate about a human rights movement, or shared a video you found inspiring.

Go talk to them about what you’re passionate about.

So after you’ve introduced yourself and shaken their hand, you can jump right into a meaningful, insightful conversation with that common ground.

And you’ll be blown away by how pleasantly surprised and delighted they’ll be that you brought those non-superficial things up. Because no one does it.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a magnificent TED Talk given by Joe Gebbia, the Co-Founder of Airbnb (given in Vancouver, not to mention.)

His talk was a fascinating glimpse at Airbnb’s mindset of designing for trust, and how strangers are simply friends waiting to be made.

So, what did I do? I tweeted him complimenting him on the talk. (And threw in an emoji, for good measure — who doesn’t love emojis?!)

That’s all it takes to get your foot in the door. A simple, delightful, pleasant interaction (be it in-person or online) that exhibits true authenticity and genuineness.

Now, how much better is that than the same-old, superficial comments we see, hear, and even make ourselves at networking events? Do you know how much of that these high-profile people get on a regular basis? It’s mind-numbing.

That’s how you can stand out when interacting with people like this.

Stop thinking “what can they do for me?”, and start thinking “what can I do for them?”.

Networking is a selfish action. It’s all about us.

I give someone my card. I follow up with them. I remind them that if they have work, they can contact me.

That’s a lot of “I” and “me”. What are you providing that’s beneficial to the person you’re meeting? There’s essentially no benefit to their connection with you.

Stop thinking of your these events as “networking opportunities” and start thinking of them as opportunities to help people.

If you can provide people with something beneficial to them, they’ll remember you down the road — you’ll stand out in their books.

Learn about people’s interests and challenges when you talk to them, and try and think of ways in which you can help them (or their company). Perhaps their UX is flawed, their design is clunky, or you think their monetization strategy could be better.

Come up with some solid, actionable suggestions that they can actually consider and possibly make use of. Offer up some design suggestions, do some usability tests, or run some numbers for them.

Or send them an e-mail afterwards with a video, podcast, or e-book you think could be beneficial to them or their company.

You have no idea how much they’ll love those genuine forms of outreach.

They won’t be insulted or disrespected that you — a student they met at some random event — is giving them suggestions on what to do. In fact, they’ll be overly appreciative and it’ll simply lead to more doors opening with them.

So, let’s stop looking at networking as superficial, self-serving opportunities; start looking at it as a place where we can be our true, authentic selves, and a place where we can help others.

Maybe, then, it’ll actually serve its true purpose — making real connections.

Just think of what former U.S. president John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address in 1961:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”