We’ve been talking a lot here on the blog about networking in business and life (a word, as you guys know, that I’m not crazy about — but more on that in a moment). Marsha Shandur, a recent guest on the podcast, taught us how to reframe the dreaded networking event and break out of small-talk hell, while Yoni Dina reminded us that sometimes it’s important not to network. Building on their terrific insights, I wanted to offer a few (new and nontraditional) thoughts of my own on how to build high-quality relationships.
I’m excited to share them with you, because if there’s one concept that’s been overanalyzed and beaten to death, it’s networking. Now that we’ve covered all of the fundamentals, we have to move beyond truisms like “lead with generosity” and “focus on passion” if we’re going to become great at developing deep, meaningful relationships. Anything less will keep us in that surface-level, perfunctory sort of networking we’ve all (strangely) grown accustomed to.
And yes, I just used the word “networking,” even though we need a much better term for what we’re teaching here. “Relationship building” gets us closer, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite the same way, and it can easily be just as transactional and smarmy. Anyway, it’s all about the intention.
So when I use the word “networking” here, I’ll do it with a wink and a nod. If you’re a regular reader or listener of The Art of Charm, then you’ll know that I’m talking about authenticity, generosity and rapport. I’m talking about creating attraction and building real friendships. I’m talking about true connection.
Which requires, first of all, that you…
- Be patient, but be smart.
Reaching out to new people can be a time-intensive, drawn-out process. It might require multiple emails, phone calls and events. It might take weeks or even years to form a friendship. The truth is, if you want to connect with the people you like and admire, prepare to be in it for the long haul.
From that perspective, organic relationship building is terribly inefficient. But it’s only inefficient because true connection can’t be hacked. You can’t manufacture authenticity. You can’t invent a friendship. These things take time because they deserve it.
Networking in business is only inefficient from the perspective of quantity and speed, not quality and depth. If it’s real relationships you’re after, then you’ll have to be patient.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be smart. You might not be able to hack friendships, but you can hack the processes surrounding them.
So as you expand your social circle, look for ways to scale your quality time. The social sales funnel, for example, is one of the most effective tools for cultivating your network and connecting with multiple people at a time. Hosting fun, low-key events for your new friends on a regular basis is another. Even small tips, like scheduling automated follow-ups, finding multiple routes to a new connection, and sending interesting articles to your contacts, can help you form relationships more quickly without creating too much additional work.
Still, remember that you’re in pursuit of human relationships, and human relationships take time. So be patient and persistent, even as you systematize your networking.
- You get more than one shot.
Sometimes you find a direct line to someone, and you’re immediately in. Other times, you have to commit, persist, and continually make the case for meeting someone. In many cases you’ll find that you just didn’t manage to build the relationship you were hoping to build.
At that point, most people give up. Which isn’t necessarily bad—sometimes you have to know when to let something go.
But the beauty of good networking is that you don’t only get one shot to connect with someone. There’s no rule forcing you to keep trying when you’re not getting a response, but there’s also no rule telling you to give up. In fact, not getting an immediate response can be just what you need to keep building and circle back when you have something new to offer.
In our years of coaching, we’ve seen people reach out to their heroes several times without an answer, only to receive a response several months (and many long nights of hard work) later.
Greg, one of our students and a writer in Los Angeles, once reached out to a major producer about his screenplay. He politely persisted after a few unanswered emails, convinced her to read his script, and finally received some brutal feedback. He spent a few weeks reflecting on the notes, rewrote his screenplay, and reached back out, only to receive another round of notes. He went back to the drawing board twice more, taking his time to really understand and incorporate her perspective, before reaching back out at a respectful interval. Nine months later, they finally met for coffee for the first time. They’re now collaborators and best friends and have a television series in development.
We’ve heard dozens of stories like that. So never succumb to the belief that you only have one shot with someone. First impressions do matter, of course, but not as much as your character, which you can only establish over time. One of the most powerful ways to establish your character is to demonstrate what you’re willing to do to meet someone you admire—which almost always requires tenacity, patience, and a willingness to give it more than one shot.
The question then becomes: How do you know when it’s time to give up trying? At what point does persistence become annoying?
Well, the truth is…
- It’s both very easy and very difficult to make a networking mistake.
If you’re truly committed to connecting with someone, then remember this: You will have to risk being annoying in order to reach them.
And it’s easy to be annoying. Unless you’re being put through a test of persistence and resourcefulness—like this famous biz dev guy—then following up with the same request again and again will probably only alienate the person you’re trying to reach. The more you hit the same note, the more people tend to behave in the same way — by ignoring your note. At that point, you quickly become redundant, maybe even annoying. You can see how easy it is to fall into that trap.
But you don’t have to be annoying. There is a way to persist without ever becoming redundant or driving someone away.
The key is to demonstrate change while continually providing value.
The same note from the same person will probably evoke the same response. But varying your approach—by sharing a brief update on your life, highlighting your progress since you last wrote, changing up your tone and call to action—is more likely to elicit a response, because it suggests that you yourself are evolving, and that there is something new from the last note to attract a response. People have a tendency to respond more strongly to changing stimuli, especially when they see that you can generate momentum without them.
The best kind of change, however, is the ability to provide different forms of value with each communication.
Traditional networkers will suggest that following up every two weeks with a short “Hope you saw my last note; let me know when you’re available for coffee!” will do the trick. But it’s rarely the follow-up itself that does the work; it’s the value of that follow-up.
So as you chase the people you want to meet, constantly find ways—big or small—to make their life better, easier, or more enjoyable. The first time you reach out, include a link to a useful article related to their line of work. The second time you reach out, offer to introduce them to someone who works in their field. (This becomes easier, by the way, the more you do it: Ideally, you’re connecting people within and across industries as a matter of practice all the time.) The third time, share an insight you picked up that might help them with their business. The fourth time, send a podcast link or a video that made you laugh.
(Seriously. “Providing value” means many things depending on the context and the person. As it happens, laughter is one of the most powerful gifts you can offer. Jay Leno once said that “You can’t stay mad at somebody who makes you laugh.” If your goal is to network without annoying someone, then humor will be your best friend.)
Am I saying it’s impossible to make a mistake if you continually provide value? Certainly not. This still requires good judgment, sensitivity, etiquette, and an ability to provide true value, rather than thinly veiled networking bribery.
What I am saying is that it’s very difficult to be inappropriate if you’re genuinely focused on the other person’s success. Your networking response rate will skyrocket as soon as you find ways to consistently help other people. That help, in turn, becomes your invitation to the table. You’re sharing, as opposed to reaching, and your desire to connect becomes part of a larger gift.
- Acknowledge the weirdness.
If it isn’t obvious by now, “networking” isn’t natural. The concept itself—of trying to be both deliberate and genuine about whom you meet—is a paradox. But networking doesn’t have to be awkward, if you use the awkwardness to your advantage.
“Hi Dave,” I began an email recently.
“Sending you this note must seem almost random, but I had to write you to talk about your awesome speech last week.” I went on to tell him what I enjoyed, sent him a cool article I had read about his industry, and invited him onto my show.
That kind of introduction — just one of many I send each week — cuts right through the awkwardness of reaching out to a total stranger. It comments on the randomness of an unsolicited email, then blows right past it.
I probably talk about the awkwardness of networking more than most experts, because I feel like everyone’s pretending that forced introductions and small talk are a normal part of the social dance. They are, but they don’t need to be. I personally respond well to people who acknowledge how strange a random intro can be. The moment someone acts like a real human (by acknowledging then breezing past the early awkwardness of networking), I find myself opening up. I suspect I’m not alone there.
So the next time you reach out to someone—especially someone who is far outside of your existing network, maybe even someone important or hard to reach—consider cutting through the randomness by commenting on it.
Anything from “I can’t imagine how many emails like this you must get…” to “Receiving a thank-you letter from a reader must be a bit random…” will do the trick. Call it out, but don’t dwell on it. This is simply your way of saying: “I understand your experience of me, a stranger, as I’m reaching out to you. Now let me tell you why we should be friends.”
With that simple step, you’re communicating a number of important things. That you understand the social dynamics at play. That you’re not naïve or oblivious to other people’s realities. That you possess enough empathy to understand how you come across to other people. Perhaps most importantly, that you might be sending a random note, but that you yourself are not random.
- Be unapologetic.
A lot of networking hiccups occur when a networker (ugh, that word!) consciously or unconsciously apologizes for reaching out.
This can take the form of “I know you probably wouldn’t talk to an undergrad about finance, but…” or “Sorry to bother you, but I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to share your thoughts on finance.” Or whatever socially-conditioned self-deprecation you happen to prefer.
We all have ways of keeping our heads down, of acting like our needs don’t really matter. In doing so, we subtly give up our place at the table before we even sit down. This kills our chances of truly connecting, because we’ve already discounted ourselves before the relationship even begins.
But great relationships tend to develop when you assume the opposite: that you do matter! That your note is important! (If you feel that it isn’t, take a moment and reread this article, and hit me up with your questions below.)
So look out for the ways in which you’re apologizing for networking. In fact, do the opposite: be clear and confident about why you’re writing. Jun Loayza of Bunny Inc. is a master at this. In his emails, he gets right to the point and bolds the phrase, “Why I’m writing.” He then explains, in one or two sentences, precisely why he’s reaching out and why he’s excited to connect. You don’t need to mimic that technique exactly (because developing your own style is essential in networking in business or any environment), but I find his approach refreshingly self-assured. It’s no surprise that Jun’s response rates are pretty remarkable.
Which is not to say that hyper confidence is the answer. Being unapologetic isn’t about being brash, arrogant or pushy; it’s about being forthright and specific in your reasons for reaching out. It’s hard to be apologetic or big-headed when you’re just being super clear about your great reasons for forming a new friendship.
So there you have it: my nontraditional secrets on killer networking in business and life. In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring many of these principles in more depth.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you.
Have these principles helped you connect with the people you want to meet? Have you discovered interesting ways to demonstrate change and consistently deliver value? Have you successfully reached someone after several attempts? Have you seen any great YouTube videos, ideally of cats? Hit me up below, and let’s keep talking!