|There is a lot of nonsensical ‘conventional wisdom’ out there about networking. About the need to be aggressive. About the importance of exchanging business cards. About only networking with ‘key decision makers’. About the art of small talk. About exaggerated politeness. About being everything but yourself. In my experience, none of this advice works. Here are ten things that do:
- Do your research. Learn who specifically you need/want to meet (whether your networking objective is business or personal). Find out as much as you can about them, and where you are likely to meet them, or where you are likely to meet someone who can introduce you to them. And don’t limit yourself to ‘secondary’ (Internet and library) research. Talk to existing contacts to unearth information about your target contacts that no one else has (but be careful to verify it). Most networking ‘events’ that are organized for you are a waste of time — you’ll meet mostly other people looking to meet people who aren’t there. Usually, the best networking events are those you have deliberately got yourself invited to.
- Develop ‘elevator speeches’. First impressions are important, and a brief, clear, compelling, rehearsed (but natural-sounding) 20-30 second statement, prepared for and delivered to a specific target contact when you first meet, can be powerful. They shouldn’t be the first thing you say, of course, but you shouldn’t wait too long. They should be unique (something only you could/would say), personal and engaging but not fawning, all about the other person not about you, and should suggest how you might be able to help the other person. Hard work, but worth it.
- Don’t underestimate the ‘strength of weak ties’. This is the theory (which is well-supported) that most of the critical successes in your personal and professional life will come through someone who knows the person who will ultimately be responsible for that success (future customer, employer, best friend or spouse), not through a direct, planned or serendipitous contact with that person him/herself. Those ‘friend of a friend’, two and three degrees-of-separation contacts need to be nurtured and real — if you’re just using someone to get to someone else, they’ll know, and the outcome won’t be pretty. But there can be an implicit ‘exchange of favours’ among weak ties — if you introduce me to X I’ll introduce you to Y. Reciprocity is OK.
- Listen and help. Women are often better networkers than men because they listen better, and they know that asking another person questions is a great way to engage them and draw them out. The objective of asking questions is to learn how you can help the other person, not to set them up for your sales pitch. Networking is not about selling (your product or yourself), and if you try to sell too early, not only will you fail, you won’t get a second chance. If you understand the other person’s needs, and can gently suggest that you might be able to help him/her meet those needs, you’ve succeeded.
- Never lie, and don’t tolerate bullshit from others. Even being associated with dishonest people can seriously hurt your networking efforts, and if you yourself get a reputation for dishonesty or exaggeration, you’re toast. Always be genuine — people have great bullshit detectors. A classic example of this kind of well-intentioned but disastrous deceit is the guy that calls you up and asks to ‘interview’ you, when his real motivation is to land a job with your company, using you as his research tool. Ask yourself how you would feel as the unsuspecting ‘interviewee’. Ugh.
- Understand that every conversation is an implicit contract. The person who you’re talking to has an objective in talking to you (which might be as simple as extracting him/herself from the conversation ASAP). You have an objective in talking to that person. Those objectives may not be clear at the moment of first conversation, but one way or another they’ll crystallize quickly. Like a dance, one person needs to lead (both people trying to lead is not uncommon, but pretty ungraceful). The lead may switch back and forth, and that’s all part of the implicit contract that guides and steers the conversation. That’s why listening is so important, reading the body language, establishing trust and rapport. Until you both understand the implicit contract, there can be no real conversation, and without real conversation there can be no real relationship. This is very subtle, but very important stuff. The only way to be good at it is lots of practice.
- Follow through and follow up. If you say you’re going to do something in a conversation, that’s a commitment. Do it, quickly. Otherwise, you’ll have a reputation for breaking promises you’ll never live down. And if you do establish a good relationship, don’t just walk away — ask for a follow-up meeting, or, if you’ve really impressed and you know it’s now or never, ask for the work, the job, the date.
- Learn to tell stories. Nothing is more engaging, or more subversively effective, and nothing cuts through the ice better than a well-told story. That’s why the best speeches always start with them.
- Prune your networks. Although there’s no hard-and-fast rule, many experts believe that it’s impossible to maintain meaningful relationships with more than about 150 people at a time. It’s like juggling — too many balls in the air spells disaster. Do triage: Some relationships will grow just fine with no attention. Others aren’t going anywhere no matter how hard you work at them. Focus on the third group — those which will blossom with investment, but not without.
- Manage your networks. Occasionally sit down and go through your network list and evaluate each relationship, what its value is to you, what needs to be done, and which ones are most important and most urgent. Don’t let the urgent relationships consume all your time so there is no time left for the important ones. Networks are an investment — like a garden they need to be tended, weeded, watered, and at the right time, harvested.