After a quiet spell here, let's kick of the new year with a new topic: Networking (the social kind).
In contrast to "super networkers" like Keith Ferrazzi (author of the best-seller "Never Eat Alone"), our old buddy Scott ("Screaminscott") kicked things off with the following plea:
I understand networking. I really do. It pays to know people, and have people know you.
But here's the thing. What if you don't LIKE people? What if dealing with people exhausts you? What if simple small talk is an effort, as you strain to feign an interest in the other side of the conversation, while simultaneously wracking your brain to come up with a relevant comment when the other person stops talking? What if "staying in touch" with someone make you break out in a cold sweat, because you have to make up a reason to call someone so it isn't completely obvious you are just keeping your network alive.
I just can't get around the feeling that networking is all about faking relationships, so you can keep in contact with people you might need something from in the future.
As a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I can certainly identify with this perspective. Making small talk wears me out faster than just about anything. Luckily, I've found ways to compensate.
You see, I've found that the hard part for me as an introvert is trying to process new information on the fly, and contribute meaningful info back into the conversation. So, I've now given up on that tact - instead, I have gotten better at asking lots of open-ended questions. Two things happen in this way:
- I get lots of new data that I can process later.
- The pressure is off for me to talk about topics that I'm unfamiliar with - then, when we get into a topic I've already "pre-processed" I'm fine with jumping in with observations.
With this "genuine curiosity" approach, this kind of thing has gotten a lot more enjoyable for me. I still have to be really deliberate about following up, but that's another issue.
Reframe the conversation to suit your needs
Christopher Stout suggested a similar approach, by "reframing" the conversation to satisfy a need of your own. In his case, he likes to help people, so he steers the conversation to uncover problems they are dealing with so he gets a chance to engage his problem-solving skills, and tries to help the other person solve their problem. Chris points out some benefits of this approach:
"If you keep in contact with meaningful suggestions, you're going to boost your image. You will become more than just "this guy I know", and turn into "this guy who's always coming up with ideas".
...and reminded us of potential pitfalls:
- "Annoying the hell out of your network with too much chatter.
- Spending a LOT of time just keeping up with people.
- Scalability - how big can your network get w/o losing communication?
- Generating adequate amounts of quality content and questions.
- Works best with people in your trade, although business problems often cross borders. "
Chris also suggested choosing the medium in which you are most comfortable - do your networking in email, for example, if you don't like to talk on the phone.
Strangers on a train
Scott agreed that the Chris's approach was a good one, but it still doesn't help him engage with people who he has no real reason to talk with - what I think of as "cold calling." Scott described scenarios where there is not current context in common (when you don't know someone yet, and don't have enough data to create a solid basis to reach out to them), or where you have an obsolete context in common (past co-workers, for example) and don't have much in common now that the old context doesn't exist for the two of you.
Bren chimed in to relate a story about his friend Matt Homan, who's one of those "naturals" at talking to people (we all know people like that, don't we?) - and offered that we all end up talking "in context" when we network, but that we may have different definitions of what context we're operating within:
"...though Matt probably connects with triple the number of people that I do, neither one of us is doing it out of context. Context being those things we're interested in. Matt's trying to build a business, so his interests are pretty broad these days. He's got a genuine interest in what people are doing and he loves talking to them about it. Sometimes he gets business because of it, but it's not the primary motivator. Same with me--I'm interested in what I'm interested in. Sometimes I identify particular people that I'd like to get to know better, or who know stuff that I'd like to learn, and I make a point to try and know them. I suck at following up, but I'm working on it.
"I can't speak for Matt, but I'm utterly turned off by trying to know as many people as I can, purely for the sake of "networking." I'd much rather have a smaller network of people with whom I have a true connection".
So when you're uncomfortable, look for ways to redefine the context to make it feel less like a cold call. Phil Gerbyshak offered some sage advice on how to do that:
"The key to making real connections is to find that common thread, that "reason to talk to someone" and use that to connect. Think about those you've recently reached out to, even here, and why did you connect with them? Chances are at a conference you're both trying to learn something about something you feel you *need* to learn more about. How about a follow-up call/e-mail when one of the presenters at the conference publishes a new article, or when you find a new resource that builds upon which you've already learned??
Does size matter?
Steve S. made a great observation about quantity vs. quality of interactions:
"...it is not volume that is important as much as it is the quality of the contacts. You go to a conference, meet a bunch of folks but really connect with a couple. Follow up with those couple, in context. Be yourself, be considerate, be informative. The network will grow gradually but does not need to grow exponentially to be successful. Sometimes you just need to enable the network and then let the net work."
"That's kinda what I was trying to point out...when I noted that Matt has many and I have few, but both are relevant to us. The volume of (relevant) contacts seems to be a function of personality more than anything else.
Get your gaggle on
This is cool. A gaggle of introverts talking about networking.
This is cool. A gaggle of introverts talking about networking.
Dick Richards made a very amusing observation about all of the dialog, at this point, calling us "A gaggle of introverts talking about networking." Turns out, Dick's not only a self-proclaimed introvert, he's even made up rules for us, and published them for all the world to see: Richards' Rules For Networking.
Jack Vinson pointed out a similar set of resources at Networlding, which provides a complementary perspective.
Networking doesn't require superhuman effort
Concerned that your life will be consumed by networking? Roger made some killer observations about the time and energy required:
"Why treat your 'contacts' differently from your friends. Some friends live as far away as Germany (I just moved from Canada to the UK so ....). We talked maybe twice a year. Visited once every 2, 3 yrs. We are busy people and we just don't have time for idle chit chat. When we talk its like we hung out the night before and it doesn't feel like 6 months have gone by."
Roger also pointed out that every interaction doesn't need to be about extracting value from the relationship - sometimes you just hang out for the heck of it. He commented that he often meets old business acquaintances for wings and watching hockey, just to keep the thread alive. This may only happen once in a blue moon, but Roger notes that relationships are about long horizons - not short ones:
"I don't measure my networking in months or years, but in decades. Where will these people be in 20 yrs? I have a friends that I have kept in contact with for 7, 8 yrs and they are pretty high up the food chain now and I ask you do you think it was worth the 1 or 2 nights a year I met them and bought (maybe) the beer and wings at the pub while watching hockey?"
Expand your horizon
Just as he pointed out the merits of long time horizons for relationships, Roger pointed out that if you have trouble finding something to talk about (i.e. can't find a shared context) with someone, try to broaden your topic horizon: "People are vast and varied take a moment to find out what you like that they like."
Some people are natural networkers, and others aren't. For those of us who are introverted or uncomfortable in free-form discussions, there are quite a few techniques we can employ to make things easier:
Ask open-ended questions to learn more and increase the likelihood of identifying shared interests or contexts
Keep the long game in mind, and don't expect actionable outcomes from every networking interaction
Re-frame the conversation to tap into your own strengths, interests, etc. (such as steering things toward problems you can help solve, if you're into problem-solving)
Don't compare your networking style and skill to the "super networkers" of the world - what's right for them may not be right for you
Don't just give up - in this life, any improvement in your ability to link to others can help you in ways you've never thought of.
Helpful, caring, experienced people are what make Never Work Alone go. Thanks for all the contributions and insight on this topic from those who participated in the discussion.
Dwayne Melancon is the author of the Genuine Curiosity blog.