“Networking is a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand.” -Marsha Shandur
Networking. The word alone probably conjures up some unpleasant associations. Probably a smarmy guy forcing his presence on you, insinuating himself into your conversation, thrusting a business card into your hand as he suggests, with a false smile, that you “do lunch.”
Networking shouldn’t be anything like that, says Marsha Shandur, who believes that “networking” is a bad term for the simple process of meeting new friends who happen to work in the same industry as you. So forget your conventional business networking tips. Done properly, networking — scratch that, “making friends” — should be fun.
Stop thinking of it as “networking”
“I hate the word ‘networking,'” says Shandur. So do most people: Whenever we ask who likes networking in our bootcamps, no one says they actively enjoy it — in fact, just about everyone says they can’t stand it. So when someone asks Shandur what she does, she immediately calls herself a “networking mentor.”
To illustrate the stereotype of poor networking, Shandur paints a picture of a man walking up to random, important-looking strangers, flattering them in less-than-genuine ways, and telling them “work with me, I can make you big bucks.” In fact, that’s what she used to think “networking” was all about, until she discovered the power of authentic relationship-building.
Shandur offers an alternative to that transactional model. She says that when you network, you’re really just making industry friends. These are people you would be friends with anyway, regardless of what you do for a living. “It’s just talking to nice people that you get on well with about things that you’re interested in,” she says.
Once you stop seeking generic business networking tips and shift to a friendship mindset, it becomes possible to actually enjoy connecting with those around you. Walking into a room and thinking, “Who should I be networking with?” is terrifying, but walking into a room and wondering who you’d want to be friends with is exciting. Even if you have to make a connection with someone — to expand your professional network, say, or to close a deal — chatting them up like a new friend involves way less pressure.
Everyone hates small talk
When Marsha says she’s a networking mentor, people often tell her that they “hate networking, because I hate making small talk.”
“I’m just like, ‘Bless you. You’re not special,'” she says. “Even grannies don’t like making small talk.” But small talk is a necessary evil. You can’t walk up to a stranger and ask, “What would you rather have: a cloak of invisibility or the power to fly?” So you start with more immediate, accessible topics.
But people don’t hate small talk because it’s small; they hate it because it’s stiff and lifeless. When we make small talk, we’re usually just going through the motions of “getting to know someone.” You know it, and so does your new friend. So Marsha recommends you have one piece of small talk ready to get the ball rolling. She likes “What was your week like?” quickly followed by “What was the best part?” Both questions avoid the dreaded “So what do you do?” and allow an easy pivot out of what Marsha calls “the small talk bubble.”
Open-ended questions like these allow your new friend to share only what they feel comfortable sharing. When you ask about the best part, you let them talk about something that excites them, something they’re passionate about. You create an opportunity to bond over shared interests. Even better, you’ll make them feel great, because everyone prefers talking about their passions.
“When people feel great around you, they feel great about you,” says Marsha. That’s the lifeblood of rapport.
What’s more, jumping on the small talk grenade gives your new friend a great gift. You’re doing the unpleasant business of approaching and starting a conversation — the hardest part of making a connection. Your new friend will likely feel a huge sense of gratitude toward you for doing the small talk dirty work so they didn’t have to.
Stop worrying about approaching and just do it
People always ask Shandur about the right time to approach. It’s a question we cover extensively in The Art of Charm bootcamps. How do you know when it’s okay for you to approach someone new?
Shandur lives by a simple rule about approaching. “If they don’t have to significantly change their body language to talk to you, it’s okay to approach,” she says. Sometimes groups of people are just closed off, so approaching would be awkward. In all other situations, go ahead. Just like walking up to groups of women in clubs, it won’t ever be perfectly easy, but it will get less nerve-racking the more you do it.
One effective way to approach is to pose a question to the group based on what they’re discussing. An inquisitive approach is the complete opposite of butting in and demanding everyone else listen to you. Asking questions instantly adds value to the entire group. In fact, Shandur has noticed that people will rave about how fascinating she is to their friends when all she’s done is ask them questions.
If your approach doesn’t go well, or if the group is already engaged and you can’t break in — something Shandur says will be the exception and not the rule — simply leave the group with confident body language. No one will think twice about it, because…
No one is paying attention to you
One of the most liberating things you can realize is a spy mantra Marsha learned: “No one is thinking about me. Everyone is thinking about themselves. Just like I am right now.”
There’s also a Russian phrase her mother used to use that loosely translates as “Who needs you?” It amounts to the same principle: You’re just not that important, especially to strangers.
Think about it. At any given moment, everyone else is so wrapped up in their own world that they’re not paying nearly as much attention to you as you are paying to yourself. In fact, your self-consciousness is nothing more than a manifestation of natural human solipsism. Which is really “a blessing,” says Marsha, because it’s “a cloak of invisibility.”
So if you have to cut and run, either from a group you just approached or from the entire event, don’t sweat it. You’re paying way more attention to yourself than anyone else is. Once you realize you have this cloak of invisibility, you’ll be free from lots of awkward conversations and seemingly uncomfortable social situations.
Bond over mutual interests
Marsha’s simple, intuitive tip for making new industry friends is to relax and have natural conversations. You both work in the same field. You both have common passions and interests. Bonding naturally over what you already have in common makes it much more likely that you two will hit it off than delivering an elevator pitch. The former creates natural rapport. The latter puts the other person on the defensive. No one wants to feel like you’re “selling” them something.
Instead, she suggests, “Just make them like you. Make them want to spend more time with you.” When it comes to having fun and being successful at networking, think of it as a “long-term relationship, not a one-night stand.” You’re not looking for quick wins. You’re looking for meaningful and sustainable connections. What easier way to create connections than by chatting about subjects of interest to both of you?
It doesn’t matter how good you are at selling your ideas if others find you off-putting. When the event is over, you’re far more likely to get a call or an email from people who just liked you.
Give before you even think about taking
Giving makes people want to give back to you. As Shandur puts it, “In a dream world, what you want to do is add value to people long before you ask for anything.”
I’d go one step further: Don’t even think about what you might get down the line. It was author and salesman Zig Ziglar who said, “You can have everything in life that you want if you just give enough other people what they want.”
So give freely of yourself without thinking about what it will “get” you. And we’re not talking physical gifts here. Genuine compliments are much more powerful, totally free, and intensely valued. When the event is over, Marsha suggests you take two minutes to send an email. “All anybody wants in life is to feel truly seen and heard and understood and also to feel like they’ve been of service,” she says, adding that “if you can tell someone they did that for you, you’re giving them a huge gift.”
Letting people know why they’re valuable isn’t just for when you’re out making new friends. Giving value should be a regular habit. A simple way to practice value-giving is by leaving blog comments — something Shandur never used to do until she realized just how much comments mean to writers. Another excellent gesture is sending people useful articles, which demonstrate that you’ve paid attention to their interests and are eager to contribute. Small packages and snail-mail letters are also a great way to stand out. “Everyone loves it,” she says, and “nobody does it.”
Fearlessly exit awkward conversations
A terrifying networking scenario is the awkward, dead conversation. Another is the guy who won’t shut up. Shandur believes that even these perilous situations can be handled with grace and turned to your advantage.
So how do you get out of the world’s most awkward conversation without hurting someone’s feelings? Marsha says you simply give them a warm smile, strong eye contact and say, “It was lovely to meet you.” Then you just walk away. This gives value as you exit the conversation: No matter how awkward they are, they are now someone you think is “lovely to meet.”
But what about the guy who won’t shut up? In that context, you’ll want to say something along the lines of “I’m really enjoying this conversation, but I promised myself I would talk to a certain number of people today. Can we pick this up via email?”
In both scenarios, you’re making people feel good about themselves even while you exit stage left.
Follow up like a people professional
Nothing you’ve done so far will count for anything if you don’t follow up the right way.
When you do follow up, preferably via email, put yourself in context. Call back to something the two of you talked about, something that your new friend would remember you by. “They’ll invest more in people they’ve already invested time in.” Or, if you met them through a mutual friend, mention this mutual friend. It sends a simple but powerful message: Your friend thinks you’re a solid person, so you must be too. “It gives you credibility,” she says.
Then inquire about specific topics that you’re actually interested in. It lets your new contact know you didn’t just send out a form email to 20 people hoping for some kind of a response. In general, Marsha notes that people want to help out, but they want to help people who are good at being helped.
… Which means following up again
Marsha and Jordan both agreed that ignoring a first email can be the simplest way of weeding people out, so you must follow up. She thinks you can email up to five times about the same topic, provided that you’re leaving two weeks in between emails and remaining polite and helpful. Go back into your “sent” folder, reply all and ask them to look below. “They might like it because it’s hard to get to all their emails.”
End your notes with a clear call to action. Her magic bullet sentence is, “If you have two mins to hit reply and let me know, that would be fantastic.” Something about walking people through the process gets more responses. Letting your recipient know specifically what you want to know makes their life easier. Making their life easier makes the chances of you getting a response much higher. “So much of this stuff is just about removing barriers.”
Building your new life beyond traditional networking boils down to a few simple, core practices. Most importantly, relax. Allow yourself to have fun. Having fun transforms a painful chore into something you do for its own sake, something you genuinely enjoy. That’s crucial as you try to practice giving value without getting anything in return. Free from the trap of standard networking, you might soon find that making industry friends becomes your new favorite activity. At the very least, your social life is about to get far richer, and a lot easier.
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