The problem with networking is that everything about it is horrific. You’re shoved into a space with a hundred other schmucks, all clasping at business cards, shaking sweaty hands, and talking about how the Blue Jays’ season could still turn around if they could just beat Philly.
That was my impression of networking for years, except I was in the UK so everyone was talking about football in a way I didn’t understand. “Yes,” I would say as I palmed off another card. “Upper Slaughter really does need this win if they want to avoid relegation.”
That all changed when I ended up in North Carolina. There, I got to watch two different businessmen network in a way I’d never seen before. Instead of dreading it, they went out of their way to find opportunities to do it. More interestingly, they also didn’t just talk about bad sports and good weather – they talked about families and music and the stuff that normal relationships are made of.
Give and take
The first thing I recommend is to go into networking events with a clear plan. Here’s the key – that plan shouldn’t be “Get a new client/job/LinkedIn connection.”
You should figure out what works for you, but what I want to get is a good story. Not about how we all got drunk at the meeting and Tom climbed on the roof and threw a watermelon on his own car. I mean I want to collect someone else’s story.
This does a couple things. First, it keeps me on the hunt and it keeps me asking questions. Where did you go to college, what do you like to do in your spare time, where were you when X happened. Second, it doesn’t make anyone give anything up. No one has to give me an email or a name or anything other than a story about themselves.
I actually do this when I ride in a Lyft, too. My last driver was stationed in Vietnam in 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated. He was working the overnight at some old, converted French telecommunications station outside Saigon. The first time the message came through, he wrote back, “I don’t think that’s a very funny joke.” Then the bells started ringing.
I got this idea from Blair. Blair was a commercial real estate guy that I had known since middle school and who happened to be the guy that found my previous employer’s office. Does that sentence make sense?
Anyways, Blair is one of the most outgoing people I’ve ever come across. We went to a Durham Bulls game once, and he spent five minutes getting to know the parking lot attendant. Just because he was there and we were there. He just loved talking to people.
That made him a lot of fun to talk to. He was the sort of guy that you wanted to invite to other events because he was bringing out the best in the people around him. He wasn’t seeking to make himself the center of attention, he was looking to shine a light on everyone else.
For me, networking is about giving people a chance to shine. By asking questions, I give people a chance to talk about the things that are important to them. If they don’t want to talk, they can opt out pretty easily. More often than not, though, people are happy to talk about themselves.
Give someone the spotlight and watch them dance. They’ll remember you as the person that made them smile.
Make a friend
The next part of my networking plan comes from Ray, my old boss. Ray was a champion networker. You couldn’t swing a dead parrot without hitting someone that knew him. The best part of Ray was that people didn’t just know him, they really liked him.
No one in town wasn’t his buddy. Ray got a lot of work through networking, but his focus was on – surprise – growing his network. He wanted to know more people because he liked knowing people. As it turns out, the more people you know, the more people can recommend you when a need arises.
While I’m looking for stories, I’m also talking to people about their interests. Who here is like me in a way that makes me want to get coffee with them? Who works near me and would be fun to grab a drink after work with?
You don’t need to walk out a networking event with a new best friend, but try to walk out with a follow-up. A person that you’re at least going to get in touch with about one specific thing. I’m a horrible salesman, so usually I’m emailing someone about that place in DC to get a good burger, but that’s better than nothing.
Introduce people to each other
This is the most classic bit of advice that I’m going to include here. Being the person that facilitates good network is incredibly valuable, but it’s also incredibly instructive. You know Sandra, who helps with supply chains, and you know David, who’s opening a restaurant. What happens when you introduce them?
To me, the most useful part of introductions is refining how I read people’s needs and skills. When I introduce two people and they hit it off, then I know I read the situation correctly and that helps me refine how I interact with people at the next networking event.
When it goes wrong, and Sandra and David get married and then go through a nasty divorce and then I end up with some of David’s stuff while he finds a new place, but Sanda’s coming over for dinner and -oh no – can he come by and pick some stuff up now, then I learn something different.
As long as you occasionally make the right connection, you’ll start to add actual value to the people you’re meeting. Even if you’re unemployed and not looking for work, connecting people can make their lives better and make having you around more valuable.
I think the key to this step is to connect people that you think would have a good time talking, not just people who are in a problem-solution relationship. If two people both happen to like a certain restaurant or share an interest in 35mm photography, hook them up. Having a nice time talking is worth a mint.
Don’t sell – brand
Ray and Blair have a lot in common, but the thing they share most is that they aren’t there to sell to you. Neither of them feels like their time is wasted if they walk out of an event with nothing but a few handshakes and business cards to show for it.
That’s because they’re not interested in selling to people. Instead, they let people buy them.
It’s a goofy thing to say, but it’s true. Apple reps don’t come shake your hand when you walk into the store and then press plastic earbuds into your hand to get you to buy a pair. Instead, Apple has built a brand that has people seeking it out.
Be Apple. Build a brand based on who you are. You’re pleasant, smart, faithful, efficient, sarcastic, hilarious, or maybe you’re just a jerk, but it works. Build that brand and then show the brand off when you’re networking.
When someone you know bumps into your next potential client, how do they describe you? If you can’t sum it up in a few sentences, you need to refine your brand.
Once you know who you are and what your business stands for, then you can start talking to people with some confidence.
How not to network
I hope this these ideas can act as an antidote to the usual, predatory approach to networking. Step one in Andrew Sobel’s plan to better networking is to “Figure out who matters most.” It’s like a lion telling a cub, “Look for the weak ones, little guy.”
If you treat everyone at a networking event like a piece of a puzzle or you reduce them to a series of weird social metrics, you can’t be surprised when they do the same to you. If you want to have a real relationship with a person, focus on figuring out who they are and forget yourself for a bit.
HubSpot has a similar take on networking, and I recommend checking out its ten steps to being better at building a network.
If you’re looking for more tips on getting your business off the ground, check out Capterra’s small business and entrepreneur blog. If you need a way to start keeping track of all those connections, check out our article on free customer relationship management software.
As always, if you’ve got any interesting tips for networking, drop a line in the comments or shoot me an email. Good luck.