A guy I know, but not really, named Joe Sweeney, wrote a book called, “Networking is a Contact Sport” that I read years ago. Evidently, he’s really good at networking and wanted to share his secrets to help us become, well, better networkers.
Unfortunately, even having read the secrets, I’m still a terrible networker, at least in the traditional sense. I’ve always been terrible. Being terrible at anything usually pisses me off. But being terrible at networking, that actually makes me happy.
Here’s what I mean. It makes me weirdly uncomfortable to put myself in an environment where the goal is to “meet” people and “connect.” I get hot, start sweating from my arm pits and my face gets redder than it is normally. It’s not the networking, per se, that is to blame for how I feel. That’s a genetic thing I just need to accept. The networking, the way I normally see it being done to me, just doesn’t help.
Not sure what your networking opportunities look like, but mine usually revolve around a very basic, and to me uninteresting and irrelevant, series of questions that go something like this:
“So, what do you do?” if I don’t know the other person or, “So, how’s business?” Or, “Business good?” if I know the person, but we’re not friends.
For me, The What Do You Do question is a lame and lazy one. I feel like its main purpose is as a filter, to determine whether the person thinks he or she can do business with me. If there’s a determination they can’t, they move on to find a What-Do-You-Do person with whom, perhaps, they can. If there’s a determination they can, it’s ‘give me a business card so I can hound you with “follow-up” ‘til you ignore me enough that I eventually go away.’
I’ve also found in my experience that there are precious few people who are really interested in me at the beginning, in a networking-type environment. It can’t be that I’m uninteresting, right? Or can it? Maybe I need to work on my elevator pitch, or project a more sociable vibe. Case in point, the last time I got together with my high school buddies, we went to a hip bar on an island off the Hamptons. All of them seemed confident, and practiced, at striking up conversations with the younger servers and bartenders. I felt like I was at a networking event, with the same symptoms. Later, as we reflected (that’s code for “later, when the sh*t really started flying”) on the evening, they uniformly declared that I “have no game,” whatever that means….. I don’t think it was a compliment.
Getting back to those uninterested people, yes, they ask me the what-do-you-do question, but as soon as they determine that I’m not a home-run opportunity, their eyes start scanning the rest of the room, looking for an opening to move on to their next victim, having stopped listening to me (if I was saying anything in the first place?) in the process – tough to multi-task while networking I guess. I suppose that should make me feel dis-respected, even insulted, but I don’t. I’m kind of glad when they move on. It’s gives me a chance to find a better, less noticeable, corner in which to become lost.
As a result of how I feel, and how that feeling is regularly reinforced by the goofballs who try to “network” me, I almost always show up just late enough, and leave just early enough, to miss the much anticipated ‘networking’ opportunities. I want to learn from the event, but avoid the anxiety.
When I have to be networking, I stay away from the typical questions. I’m not there to see if I can do business with anyone, so what they do doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is whether I can make a connection on a personal level. That usually means determining whether I like the person, whether I enjoy talking to them and whether they take enough interest in me to make a meaningful connection. My strategy is to entirely focus on the person, asking them questions about themselves. Why have they chosen to come to this event, what’s got them excited about their life today, that kind of thing. If I don’t enjoy the person, I don’t care what they do (even if they’re the “elephant” prospect in the room). If I do, I’ll find out what they do soon enough, but I will do so in a way that makes them feel special and interesting, and not like they’re a fish I’m looking to hook and reel in.
Before I’m dead, I’d like to feel better about networking, to feel less anxious and less uncomfortable. I just don’t know if I want it bad enough to do anything differently, which obviously won’t help me get better. I admire the people who do it well, though. There are few that I’ve met personally, but I hear that folks like Arianna Huffington and Joe Polish are very good at it. Maybe I’ll meet and learn from them some day.
In the meantime, if you try to network me and I perform terribly, with no game (as my boys say), please know that it’s entirely on me.
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