Networking is weird. It’s weird because you’re in a room with people you probably don’t know and no one wants to be sold anything but everyone is there to sell something and most people feel horrible that they have to hawk their product or service like some sideshow carnie. It all feels a little dirty. We tell ourselves we’re there to build relationships but really it’s all so unnatural that we just want to get through the damn experience. And if that isn’t enough to make you sweat through your suit, you’ve been told to create an elevator pitch and make sure your name tag is on the right shoulder instead of the left. If you hate networking or feel as if it’s manufactured and manipulative and cruelly unnatural, well welcome to the human race, we’re happy to have you!
I once went to an event where the speaker’s networking advice exemplified why humans are so terrified by the notion of networking. She insisted that you have to have an elevator pitch. Not just any pitch. You should also sound like you could be a host on a children’s television show. For instance mine might go something like, “My name is Ann marie and I teach people how to make money because if you can’t make money, how are you going to make your life happen?” This sort of singsong tagline makes me want to cry for humanity. If this is what’s necessary to be “memorable” I would like to be forgotten. It’s akin to the name game where you say something like, “My name is Ann marie and I came from Alabama on an alligator.” I’m an outgoing, try anything kind of gal but this forced networking behavior is something that should be reserved for torturing the worst of humanity.
The speaker also insisted that you wear a jacket so you could put your business cards in the left pocket and the cards you were collecting in the right pocket – always making sure to have that name tag on the right shoulder so it’s easy to find. What? Do the people you network with have the IQ of raisins? If you need GPS to find my name tag on the left shoulder instead of the right, I can’t do business with you. I don’t even want to speak with you because I’m afraid, no terrified, at the thought of doing business with you. Has this ever been an issue? Has someone been completely lost searching everywhere on the right side of someone’s body for their name tag and then finally seeing it on the left say, “Wow! I thought I’d be here all night looking for that sticky, “Hello, my name is box. Whew. You sure are a rebel aren’t cha?”
I sat through this presentation and started to develop a facial tick when the presenter asked us to stand up and introduce ourselves with our catchy pitch. I’m an extrovert but even I start sweating at the discomfort of the awkward exchange I’m about to have with a stranger because I know we are going to walk away filled with shame at behaving to the business equivalent of dancing bears.
People get paid to teach people these skills. I do not jest and this is not fiction. People get paid to train people to not act like people. It’s really effed up.
This kind of well meaning advice is excellent for very young children who behave like wild animals or aliens unfamiliar with human behavior but for the rest of us it’s like asking us to sing a Karen Carpenter song in an elevator. Any direction, training or advice that strips the humanity out of human interactions is not sustainable. We all agree that business is created through meaningful relationships but then we create situations in which the norm is to behave like a non-human, and we fail to connect.
And because networking itself is not disgusting enough, some genius decided to marry the most offensive activities in modern society to torture people even more – networking and speed dating. It’s called speed networking and was invented by some misanthropic sadist who wants to watch grown people cry and develop intestinal difficulty. Who thought of this fresh hell? The goal is literally to collect as many cards as you can because NOTHING says business relationships like a fist full of sweaty cards of people you cannot remember one single fact about. The whole artificial production causes us to laugh a little too easily and say things that make us look like we have limited social skills and low IQs. If you get through such an event without crapping your pants or drinking excessively, I congratulate you. You are a warrior.
We also have a tendency to behave like middle school students at an eighth grade dance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a networking event where there are nothing but closed circles with a few people orbiting on the outside hoping for some human kindness. It’s among the saddest things you’ve ever witnessed watching someone try to make eye contact with a member of the circle so they can participate in the discussion and end their public shame at being all alone. When someone notices someone alone and invites him or her into the circle, that act of decency tells me more about that person than any elevator pitch or extra large business card. It tells me that they notice other people, they have empathy, and they also take responsibility for those around them. Next time you go to a networking event, pay attention to how people behave and if they exclude or include.
If you’re an introvert or an extrovert like me who doesn’t care for networking events for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned, then find the other introvert or introverts in the room. When someone is standing alone or looking lost, they are extremely grateful for someone who takes the time to connect.
Rather than seeing everyone as a dollar sign, be curious about people. Ask questions. Don’t think about what you can sell someone; think instead about how you can help someone. Go with the goal of learning about people instead of collecting cards. Card collection is great if you have a paper mache project you’re working on but if you want to connect with people then worry more about how you engage than how many rectangles of cardboard you have in your pocket. People will forget your pitch and possibly lose your card but they will remember how you made them feel. What do you want people to feel when they meet you? If I met a real estate agent I would be more likely to refer him or her business based on how they made me feel than the fact that they told me they sold more houses in the county than any other agent. I don’t care if they have a business card shaped like a house or hand me a pen with their name on it. I will remember that this person felt like someone I could call if I got anxious during escrow. I will remember that they were respectful instead of slick, kind and smart instead of dismissive and self-centered and perhaps made me laugh. Yep, the ‘f’ word – feeling emerges once more. You leave an interaction and that is what remains.
The market is flooded with competition. There are a million real estate agents, five trillion social media experts and more business and life coaches than cats. I can’t remember exactly where this data came from but I will for sure site the source at the end of the book not to worry.
Networking Activity Sheet – Do it Like a Human
1. Before you attend a networking event make sure that the event will be a good source of prospective clients or referral partners. Create some criteria for yourself so that your networking is focused and strategic.
2. You should absolutely be able to communicate what you do in a succinct way but be more concerned about learning about people than talking about yourself.
3. Get permission to follow up. Don’t wait until you leave to request a meeting. Get permission to follow up in the moment.
4. Follow up within 24 hours. This is not some weird dating experiment. The longer you wait the more likely someone is to forget you.
5. If you feel uncomfortable or alone, look for someone else that is on his or her own and introduce yourself. The walls are completely capable of holding themselves up and do not need your assistance so step away from them.
6. If you know lots of people there, don’t get stuck in a circle of people you know. Invite others into your circle.
7. Be curious about people. The more you ask, the more you’ll learn and the better you’ll be able to help someone.
8. Don’t get stuck. If you need to extract yourself then do so. Don’t spend the evening with someone who is driving you to drink excessive plastic cups of bad wine.
9. Don’t make it a card collection contest. It’s not about getting a hundred cards; it’s about meeting a few great people.
10. After the event you need to have a follow up strategy that involves something more than a shoebox. Connect on LinkedIn, send a personal e-mail, and put each person in your database with good notes and follow up alerts as appropriate.
Networking Language – Speak Like a Human
1. Tell me your story. How did you get here?
2. It’s been great getting to know you. I’m going to introduce myself to a couple more people.
3. I would love to connect further. What’s a good day for us to chat next week for a few minutes by phone? (Notice I don’t set up a $1,000 coffee meeting.)
4. Who are you interested in meeting?
5. Compliment people. Be sincere but notice when someone is wearing a particularly lovely color or great piece of jewelry. We all love to be acknowledged. It’s a great way to connect that will be appreciated.
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