I still vividly remember the first networking event I ever went to.
I arrived in the room and plugged myself into a conversation. We were chatting away when we were interrupted by a man who barged in with some comment that barely had anything to do with what we were saying. He proceeded to place a business card in our hands, rattled off his elevator speech, and then walked away–leaving us as dazed and confused as everyone else he must have come in contact with that night.
Needless to say, when I arrived home that night, his card went one place and one place only:
Mentally, at least. Though I’ve never looked at his card again.
Missing the point
Many organizations host networking nights regularly. And they should. Those nights are great ways to meet new people and make new contacts. Two years ago, I wrote another post on what to do at those events.
Long story short:
Put emphasis on their cards and who they are to you. When you have a card, you can make the first move rather than wait for them to reach out to you. Look for an appropriate point to enter a conversation and enter it with grace. Sustain the conversation before finding a point to gracefully exit–make sure to ask for their business card. Only then should you give yours.
This way, you show just how interested in them you are. Networking events aren’t made to tickle your ego, they’re for making human connections. Don’t confuse their purpose.
After the event
So now the event is over. You have a smattering of cards and want to reach out to them continuously. The problem is that this still isn’t networking.
Networking is not collecting names.
Networking is not flooding your target’s inboxes with junk mail about how you can help them get insurance through some third party or with information about the latest weight-loss solution from such and such pyramid scheme.
It’s a pointed–almost charged–claim, but I’ve also noticed that people in those industries are the worst offenders. So at risk of offending anew, let me say it again.
You’re networking the wrong way.
Curate, don’t collect
Museum curators have a difficult job. They have to work not only on collecting valuable art, but also preserving it, displaying it, and–here’s the important one, marketing it. If curators focused all of their efforts on just collecting their art in the same way most networkers do, museums would be full of junk art and the Van Goghs, Cézannes, and Renoirs would be lost in a sea of pastels made by David Johnson from Des Moins, Iowa.
Sure, some people may find Mr. Johnson’s pastels valuable. But that number might extend to a small few, like his cat.
(Full disclosure, I have no idea if there is a Mr. David Johnson who owns a cat and lives in Des Moins, IA. If you exist, reach out to me, I’ll formally apologize for using your name as a generic example)
My point is this: a museum curator has to keep the collected art marketable. That means picking paintings of value that can be used to attract people to the museum and can increase the value of the museum’s portfolio.
In our own lives, we meet many people, but can only stay in contact with a few. What networking is, then, is a form of audition.
Who I will go out of my way for
In my life, I’ve met many people. Some would call the amount of people I’ve met a whole integer between zero and infinity.
Those people would be right.
And those people I meet and stay in contact with are those I depend on to help and be helped. When I have an issue that needs clarification or explaining, it helps to know someone from multiple fields. Likewise, when those I know have a project that needs publicity, I have access to people that my friends and contacts do not have access to.
Not only is the distance between me and Kevin Bacon about six degrees, so is the difference between me and almost anyone else. The difference is that the path to a certain person or certain types of people may be more efficient through me than to the surely talented Mr. David Johnson or vice versa.
Everyone has value.
So what is networking, when all is said and done?
Humans are social creatures. We like to meet new people and our main evolutionary advantage comes from having developed complex societies where each member is an expert at something else.
So networking, then, is having the savvy needed to have contacts in multiple domains who you can turn to and, most importantly, who can turn to you.
Just like you can come to them, they can come to you. In a friendlier kind of quid pro quo agreement, it’s your duty to help them to the best of your abilities when they come to you–because you would do the same for them.
It’s that simple.
Collect cards, then curate your contacts to make the most value not just for you–but for the rest of your network. It’s well within your power to make introductions to people in your network who don’t know each other but should. Play the professional matchmaker, and make the world a better place for everyone while you do it.
Now go get em, tiger.
Speaking of networking, I’m supporting a friend’s documentary: Helen. It’s a story about how one man found his birth mother after being given up for adoption. Check out the trailer here. To donate, click here.
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Cover photo by Gilles Lambert