Let’s talk about something that most of us will need to do over the course of our professional lives: networking with others. The word “networking” is a powerful one; by itself it’s enough to send shivers of fear down people’s spines and drive grown-ass men and women to cowering into corners. The idea of networking brings to mind douchey men in power suits with smarmy compliments, empty promises and baskets of business cards. Other times, it invokes images of painfully awkward “events” that thankfully have an open bar to make counting down until the social contract says you can leave more tolerable.
But as unpleasant as the idea can be, networking is actually a vital skill to develop and maintain. Like the old cliche says, it’s often not what you know but who; most people who find jobs these days do so by building a professional network. But networking has more applications than just trying to score a job. The ability to successfully network allows you to build up a web of contacts and connections that can serve you in any number of ways whether it’s finding someone who can provide you with much needed information to being able to put you in contact with people you might never otherwise have access to. It can server you in your professional and your personal life – after all, networking at a mixer isn’t different than meeting people at parties or other social events.
The problem is that most of us go about networking the wrong way – which is in no small part why we dread it. Here’s the right way to build your social network.
Stop Thinking of It As Networking
One of the first and most critical mistakes that we make is that we think of networking as, well, networking. By seeing it as a process – build this network so that you can exploit it later – you make it an unpleasant and mercenary experience for everybody… and in doing so, you end up missing the point. The goal of networking isn’t about generating sales leads, it’s about building connections. You shouldn’t be trying to make yourself look like their future MVP employee or someone who can make them a million bucks. The more you try to impress someone the more they notice you just… trying. All too often, that eager, gladhanding networker tends to give off a slimy feeling, leaving people looking for just how you’re going to screw them over.
Instead, you just want people to like you, building potential friendships rather than just useful connections. By making this mental shift from “who can benefit me the most and how do I exploit this” to “making friends”, not only do you make a mental shift that affects how you interact with people, you make the process much simpler, less stressful and ultimately more enjoyable for everybody.
To give an example: before I stumbled into being a dating coach, I tried to make a career out of publishing comics. Every year, I would make the rounds at some of the bigger conventions – not just to peddle my wares, but to simply meet other people in the industry. Most business in comics tends to be conducted not in offices but in the bars at cons. This is where creators, editors and publishers meet, mingle and often finally meet their collaborators in the flesh. However, unlike networking events, most “networking” at cons manages to look exactly like people hanging around, drinking beers, swapping stories and otherwise having a good time. By simply taking the opportunity to just hang out and chat with people, I’ve made incredibly valuable connections. However, I didn’t go in looking for potential contacts; I simply wanted to meet people and have a good time. The fact that many of my friends have ended up being valuable contacts was a bonus, not the goal.
Similarly, the idea of simply looking to connect with people instead of building a list of people I could hit up for favors meant that I didn’t focus all of my attention on the biggest, brightest and shiniest names. Just because somebody is new or inexperienced or not a “somebody” doesn’t mean that they’re less valuable in the long run than John Q. BigName holding court across the room. Over the years, the people I’ve met and made friends with via forums, local meet-ups, sharing tables at cons or hanging out at con bar have ended up being some of the biggest movers and shakers in comics and video games. The guy you meet at the Drinking And Drawing group might well end up being the artist on The Amazing Spider-Man. That guy you play foosball with at Wizard World Dallas might end up being one of the most influential artists of the early 2000s. The women who have the table next to you at Small Press Expo might be future Eisner award winners. The guy at the bar you hang out at could lead to being on a popular podcast. The people you chat with in the comments section of this site could very well end up creating the next video game or comic series or TV show that becomes a critical darling. Those initial friendships, even if they’re just shallow acquaintances at first, become the platform you can build upon over time.
By simply trying to make friends, you take the dread and anxiety out of networking and open yourself up to building a wider and potentially more valuable network.
Treat Meeting People Like A Game
One of the hardest parts of networking is all the agonizing, meaningless small talk. You end up having the same awkward conversations over and over again that leave you both squirming and wishing that this would all end just so that you didn’t have to deal with the uncomfortable sensation of “what are we doing here?”
The problem is that most of us tend to treat small talk as two people taking turns saying things that neither party really gives a shit about and giving tepid or anodyne opinions about nothing in particular. Small wonder it’s agonizing for everybody involved; it’s the verbal equivalent of Wonderbread – bland and textureless and flavorless, barely worth the effort of chewing. If you want them to like you then you shouldn’t be volleying conversational place-holders back and forth until one of you decides to get deep. Instead, what you should be doing is focusing on connecting with the other person.
As I’m always saying: interested is interesting and part of how we get other people to like us is to show that we’re interested in them. So focus on the other person – who are they, what makes them tick? Regardless of who they are, you want to treat them like there’s something absolutely fascinating about them and you’re going to figure out what that is. And you do this by asking questions. Much like classic computer RPGs (or modern games like Her Story) the “right” question isn’t always immediately obvious. Sometimes you have to go through a few dialogue trees – as it were – to find the right combination of keywords that will get to that core of interest. So you start by asking a more open question – who they are, how they know the host/other people at the party, what they do – and use their responses to drill down deeper. By being an active listener and using their answers as a springboard for further questions, you not only show that you actually care about what they have to say. This is a rare quality; most people are simply waiting for their turn to talk. Showing interest makes people feel special gratified, and they’ll associate that good feeling with you.
By treating making small talk like a game, you’ll eliminate those awkward pauses of not knowing what to say. Run a particular topic to the end? Jump back to an earlier part of the dialogue tree and go through those options. Summarize what they just said to make sure you understand and find a way to relate to it.
Just make sure you’re asking the right questions. You want to ask questions that prompt for open answers. If your question can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”, then you’re asking the wrong things.
Another key part of networking is relating to others. Much like with dating, part of what builds emotional chemistry – that ineffable quality that makes people like you – is finding out how similar we are to other people. The appeal of similarity appeals to the primitive, tribal part of our brains, the little voice that divides the world up into “us” and “them”. By demonstrating that you share commonalities, you show that you’re part of the same “tribe” and help ensure that you’re categorized in the “us” portion of the other person’s brain.
However, don’t mistake finding commonalities to mean that you’re exactly like the other person. There’s a fine line between having things in common and being a blatant suck-up; if you just “coincidentally” happen to like all the same things the other person does, you’re going to seem disingenuous at best and a goddamn lying liar who tells lies at worst.
You don’t need to be an exact clone of the person you’re trying to connect with, you just need to show that you share common ground and that you can relate to one another. Part of how I made friends at conventions was simply talking about our favorite comics. Even if we didn’t like the same comics, the fact that we spoke the same language as it were mean that we had that much more in common.
One of the easiest and most obvious examples is to bond over a contemporaneous experience – that is, that you two share similar interests or have a similar attitude. The fact that you both hate networking, for example, is an instant commonality; you’re both able to drop the pretense of networking being fun or easy and can have a mutual gripe-fest over the frustrations of the absurdities of what amounts to a business-card-exchange-party. It’s also a safe bet that most of the people hate being there and would relish the chance to be real with someone else.
Both of you being new in town, being in similar lines of work or growing up in the same town are all great commonalities. You’re able to share memories or insider observations, even if you grew up years apart. Even vicarious commonalities can help form bonds. You may not be a novelist but having a parent/sibling/close friend/frat brother/sorority sister who was a journalist or wrote non-fiction means that you can relate to someone who is and this can be a springboard to finding out more about them.
When in doubt: there’s always movies and music. Everyone likes movies and music.
Ask A Favor/Do A Favor
One of the quickest ways to build a connection with someone seems absurd at first: you ask them for a favor. On first glance, this makes no sense; you barely know this person and you’re already asking them to do something for you? It’s presumptuous! It’s rude! It’s insane!
It’s super effective.
Stick with me for a moment.
The reason why asking somebody for a favor works to make them like you is that it triggers what’s known as the Ben Franklin effect. Humans are very bad at understanding why we feel the ways we do; we believe in causality when causality is illusory at best. We have behaviors that we assume go hand in hand with attitudes; you like somebody, so you do something nice for them. However, because we believe so firmly in cause and effect, it’s possible to trick the brain by introducing the effect before the cause.
Hence, asking a favor. We do favors for people we like. We just did a favor for this person. Therefore, ispo facto, crow erect demonstratum we like them. Even though we just met them. Even better, doing that favor for somebody makes us feel good about ourselves, which also makes us more disposed to like that person. It’s like the Jedi Mind Trick, except, y’know. Real.
The cool thing is that the favor doesn’t need to be huge. Something as simple as “Hey, I need to run to the bathroom really quickly; would you do me a favor and save my seat?” is all it takes.
It also helps to do favors for them as well. Something as simple as buying someone a drink or introducing them to someone can help predispose them to not just liking you but wanting to do things to help you in the future. This is known as the rule of reciprocity; essentially, by doing them a favor, you’ve created an imbalance that they will feel almost obligated to repay somehow. Now this doesn’t mean that they’re going to feel anxious or upset like they owe you but rather that you’ve done something nice for them and now they’d like to return the favor. That free beer could easily turn into an introduction to a new potential contact, providing some new key information or even a lead for a potential sale or job.
The other benefit to doing a favor is that it allows you to demonstrate value – not in the sense of being a “high-value man” but in the sense of what you bring to the table. If you can help someone figure out a solution to a problem or demonstrate that you have a skillset that they need (or didn’t know they needed), you’re demonstrating value – something that makes you more memorable and more beneficial to them in the long run. The more value you can show you bring, the stronger the connection you’ll build with them… and that connection will pay dividends later on.
Follow Up The Right Way
Most networking meetings tend to end the same way: an exchange of cards and email addresses and promises to get in touch. Frequently this leads to a touch-base email of “Don’t forget me! Let’s do this thing together!” that tends to get ignored or forgotten… because it leaves the other person feeling vaguely used. We know it’s “just” a networking thing and so it ends up getting filed in the mental “person wants something from me” drawer.
But – continuing the theme of value and reciprocity- if you can provide value to somebody in that follow-up email, you’re not just going to be more memorable but more likable. It’s one thing to say “hey, let’s get together to talk about this thing I want to sell you” or “I’d love to see if there were any openings at your job”. It’s another entirely to say “Hey, it was great meeting you the other day. By the way, I stumbled across this article that’s relevant to $THING we talked about, and I thought you might find it interesting!” not only gives value – you’re sending them something that might be helpful – but it ties into the conversation you’ve already had, reinforcing the memory. Even little things like introducing them to somebody who might be interested in hiring them or an email congratulating them for an article about them or their company’s success can help stand out from the usual pack of “Hey, got my email? Let me take you out to lunch to talk about this opportunity…” emails.
Networking may be a necessary evil, but it doesn’t need to be annoying or unpleasant. Remember to focus on meeting people – even people who may be up and comers, rather than old established hands – instead of “networking”. It will come more naturally, help you build stronger relationships and pay off more in the end.