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The Straight Skinny on Networking at Events

Whoever you are -- I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
Blanche DuBois,
A Streetcar Named Desire

You know what event networking is, right? Of course you do, my kumquats, and that's why you hate it. It's when you set foot into a target-rich environment -- industry association get-togethers and other assorted schmooze-fests -- for the express purpose of hobnobbing with primo contacts who, with any luck, will turn out to be worth twice their weight in cocktails and canapés when it comes to building your business. Sometimes event networking gets all gussied up and taken uptown, as with gallery openings, movie premieres, and political fund-raisers, chic champagne-and-caviar events where everybody seems to have a glazed spacey look about them. But whether it's a brown-bag lunch in a Holiday Inn meeting room or the moneyed hush of the back nine at Spanish Bay, networking, necessary though it is, gives off a whiff of grabbiness that IPs just like you (and me) find appalling. It's conversation, with a motive.

Well, now, hold your horses. There are big differences between the kind of obnoxious glad-handing you fear and loathe and what marketing maestro Ivan Misner calls "notable networking." For my money, Misner supplies the best definition in The World's Best Known Marketing Secret: "Networking is the process of developing and using contacts to increase your business, enhance your knowledge, expand your sphere of influence, or serve the community." Okay, there's still a little problem with the word "using," which brings to mind hungry self-marketers who range their turf like hawks, but as Misner reasonably points out, "Networking is as good or bad as the person who happens to be doing it." Word up, Dr. Misner! What he means is that it's a skill you can acquire. So fortunately, there's hope -- even somebody who's stressed and combat un-ready can learn to carry it off with a certain amount of grace. IPs, more than your average bear, have to know a thing or two about what networking really is, what it can do, and what's a load of... well, you know.

My business dictionary says that a network is "a coalition of business professionals whose mutual support system helps everyone do business." Translation: networking is social cocaine. It'll give your business a boost, to say nothing of your confidence, which makes it more likely that you'll keep on bolstering both. That's the truth about networking. But where IP networkers go, lies and misconceptions are sure to follow. So here are some of the worst whoppers around -- believe them at your peril -- along with the straight story.

Networking Is for Sissies

No IP worth his stack of 1099s is dumb enough to really believe this one, but for some reason the idea that true pros won't rely on a silly little thing like networking has legs (big, hairy, scary ones!). I think it's because the process is so often associated with women-in-business groups, which some people (women, too) put on a par with quilting bees or Tupperware parties. Funny, since it was those same groups that invented networking as we know it -- members would get together for no other reason than to meet one another, do business together, and spawn referrals. (Check out the National Association of Women's Business Organizations, a dues-based association and networking pioneer whose programs are flat-out superb.)

Networking seems to make plenty of self-assured men uncomfortable, partly because it's a convivial and connecting activity. It's a potent pursuit, almost a second language that women learn to speak early. Men tend to favor confrontation and regard chitchat as so much frilly window-dressing, and that's not only me talking. There's been a ton and a half of research about this very subject, lots of stuff that shows how men sort of like to hang out in hierarchies that clearly distinguish one guy from another, while women prefer networked or "webbed" interactions where inclusiveness is the aim. (You know: he wants the business transaction to take place; she's interested in cultivating the relationship.) Of course, not every guy goes around hankering for a fight, just as not all women are born connectors or Chatty Cathys. But I think there's a larger point at work here: in business as in life, it's people who matter. Relationships rule. And where people are concerned, nobody's going to call you a pantywaist because you think it's important to know how to hold up your end of a conversation, for golly sakes. Having the courage to connect is coin of the realm, and that's the real soul of networking.

Networking Is the Same as Prospecting

Wrong again, dearhearts. If you approach networking as you would a deep-sea fishing expedition, I absolutely guarantee this is what will happen, and fast: every person you meet at your next cracker barrel reception, you'll instantly size up as a potential sale. Hot prospect? Stone cold haddock? Something in between? On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is frigid and 10 is scorching, where is this target? Unless somebody's eligible to buy from you, your prospecting aura (it shows) will lead you to truncate your current conversation and vacate the premises in search of something more... promising. But you're quitting too soon. Way too soon.

Networking's real clout comes not from snagging customers, but from generating referrals. Referrals may come from people whose clients have something in common with yours, or just somebody who knows somebody who could use your services. What's your contribution? Returning the favor -- you have to figure out how to refer business to them, too. Notable networking benefits all parties, which is exactly the point of the exercise. It's not all about you; that's precisely why referrals take a while to materialize. It's like wine and certain cheeses; time favors them. Lose patience with the art of conversation and connection, and you're toast. Instead, find out what that nice person you're talking to really does. What's the range of his services? What kinds of clients does he work with -- what size businesses, how many, what industries -- that kind of thing. Suppose you discover midway into your conversation that you both work with growing companies, say from $1 million to $50 million in revenues. Now that's something you can take to the bank. When in doubt, ask a question: it prolongs conversation.

Networking Requires a Serious Plan

Actually, no. As far as I can tell, most botched networking attempts can be chalked up to mechanics: a tyranny of day planners, elaborate color codes, weird impenetrable frameworks. I've known IPs so obsessed with keeping their pretty plans up to snuff that they never had time to go out and meet anybody, with predictable results.

What you want is a simple and reliable way to keep track of where you went and whom you met, and a place to record a note or two to remind you of what you talked about and what you promised to do or send by way of follow up. Don't toss the piles of business cards you collect in a drawer somewhere, because you'll never remember who was attached to that little card and what you were supposed to do about it. Likewise, don't put them in a nifty little album made to display business cards in clear plastic sleeves. You'll never see them or touch them or use them. (Confession time: the second drawer on the left in my desk is crammed with creased old business cards. I did something with some of them, I'm sure, because I scribbled notes on the back of a few. Not a successful system, however. Call it accidental networking.) To avoid that pitfall, some folks swear by software, others Filofax to the max, and some use a simple steno pad and keep handwritten notes (that would be me these days). It doesn't matter which you choose -- the system is not the secret -- so long as it's something you're happy with, which means you'll keep using it. That's the trick.

One other thing about plans: social relationships are delicate, and a big honking plan can steamroll right over everything else in its single-minded need to organize and conquer. That's how face-to-face contact turns false and flat. People can tell when your system makes you get itchy to go for the close. Ease up.

It Takes Brass Cojones to Be a Good Networker

Oh, please. No networker worth her salt is going to barge into a gathering of strangers and blare her intention to snap up every last bit of business in the room. She's not the one who thinks a piñata makes a terrific icebreaker. She wouldn't try to create a unique impression with a singing telegram (for some reason I can't fathom, this suggestion keeps popping up in marketing literature). Nightmarish images like these can scare off IPs who are confronting serious networking for the first time, especially if they're a shade on the shy side. True, networking benefits from a hefty supply of social skills and a smidgen of guts. It helps, for instance, to be able to smile without passing out, and to get really good at listening without letting your mind drift off in the middle, perhaps because you're busy planning your next zinger. A networker, like a world-class listener, must be all there.

Making room for voices other than our own is heroic work. No sidelong glances, squirming, or signs that you're being driven to distraction. World-class listeners say that if they feel their attention start to go, they ask a couple of new questions, and lean in toward the speaker. If this tactic fails, best to admit defeat, excuse yourself, and pick it up again later. The good news is you don't have to get this exactly right. Most people respond pretty well to an unpretentious but genuine attempt to walk a mile in their moccasins. As you learn to listen, people will get better at telling you things. Just please leave the theatrics and the telegrams at home.

Networking Is a Waste of Time

Only if you haven't figured out what to say after "Hello, my name is Corliss Birdwhistle." You already know what the next question will be: "And what do you do, Corliss?" Now things are about to get interesting.

If you answer, "I'm a graphic designer, and I work with all kinds of businesses," you're blowing it big time, my little crescent roll. This requires practice, but what skill doesn't? Try something like this: "I call myself a graphic designer, but I'm really more than that... because I understand my clients' marketing goals and focus on them, not just on making things look pretty on a page." You've gotten over the first hurdle -- to engage somebody else. You've also underscored results, not shilly-shallied around. Once you've explained what you do (and perhaps made a tacit pitch for what you could do for your new pal), ask a couple of good wrap-up questions, exchange cards, and follow up by calling for an appointment. See, you've done it! Didn't hurt a bit, did it?

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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