Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Email Fail

Email can be a valuable tool in your networking practice. It's a great way to maintain a light touch with members of your network. It's asynchronous nature means that they'll receive your communication whether you sent it at 2pm or 2am. While not a personal as a phone call, a well-crafted email message can still convey a true appreciation of the other person and what they have added to your life.

What I received a few minutes ago is the opposite of that.

There are email messages which I largely ignore. They are the written equivalent of the "wah-wah" noises that the adults make in the old Peanuts cartoons. The message pops up -- usually an advertisement of some kind -- and I hit "delete". Heck, I can usually delete them after reading just the header. No need to even bother opening it. The ones that get me, though, are the ones with just enough familiarity to them that I think it might be important enough to read.

This morning I received a message from "Jessie" (names changed to protect the guilty). She apologized for not getting in touch sooner after we had met at the "XYZ" networking event (names changed to protect the innocent). She really wanted to contact with me, though, so we could talk about our businesses and how me might be able to help each other. She thought she had a number of programs in her business which would help me maintain connection with my clients. Would I have any availability on either the 31st or the 1st for us to talk on the telephone?

Before I start with my rant, let me say that I am sure that Jessie is a wonderful person. I don't think she has to style her hair just right in order to hide the horns on her head nor does she have to be exceptionally fashion conscious to hide her cloven hooves nor the fact that her knees bend in the wrong direction. I think she's just not clear on the fact that connection -- true connection -- is exceptionally difficult (impossible?) to do via a form letter.

OK, that said, let's look at where Jessie's plan went horribly awry.

  1. No salutation. OK, since she's already using some sort of mail merge in order to generate her deceptive email solicitation, she should at least go to the trouble of finding out how to make it address me in a salutation by name. The only thing that was specifically targeted toward me in this message was the email address. Yes, it still would have been mendacious, but I might at least have given her credit for the effort.
  2. Stale business card. I haven't actually attended XYZ since July 14, 2010 -- nine months ago as of this writing. It's not that it's a bad event, I just have a scheduling conflict that prevents me from showing up. I may very well have met her at that time, but after most a year, the chances are somewhere between slim and none that this is anything other than a cold call for me.
  3. Not walking the talk. Jessie's business is all about strengthening connections with other people. Now, what she sells is designed to make this as easy and streamlined as possible, but it fundamentally comes down to people making friendly relationships with each other and maintaining them over time. In her message, the pinnacle of our burgeoning friendship would be a phone call where she gets to talk about how great her business is. Not a particularly effective "first date", right?
  4. Form letter. Yes, this kind of ties in with #1 above, but I thought it deserved its own line. The upside of form letters is that they are quick and easy to fire off to a large group of people. The downside is that they are largely ineffective and in the same amount of time it takes to send it, you can destroy your chances of developing a long-term mutually beneficial relationship with someone. This is because they will see you as a lying manipulator with a bad case of "commission breath". There is nothing wrong with using a general template for follow-up messages, but you must personalize each message in such a way that your recipient knows that you actually do remember them and that what they had to say was important to you.
  5. Lies in spirit. As someone who teaches people about the value of establishing deep, long-term relationships both in our business and personal lives, I find it particularly offensive when someone like Jessie uses the language of networking in order to lure someone into a sales pitch. I'm fortunate that I've been around long enough to recognize the signs of a "bait and switch" networker. The fact that the initial "contact" to which she refers happened almost a year ago is another big tip-off. On the other hand, when the misleading emailer sends this to those who are new to business, new to networking, and/or maybe a little desperate, this kind of language is nothing short of predatory in my opinion and does much to tarnish the good names of networkers everywhere.

OK, I'll get off my soapbox now. It just kind of rankles me when I see messages like this. I'm sure Jessie is not the evil mastermind behind a plot to turn everyone into zombie sheep, passively accepting everything she doles out as holy writ. Sometimes, though, "sufficiently advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice."

So, have you received messages like this? Does it get stuck in your craw, too? Or am I just turning into a grouchy, old, curmudgeon?

Photo credit: Henning Buchholz

Monday, March 21, 2011

Call Reluctance Rx

Bob always looked forward to calling strangers
In my sales training we had a concept called "Call Reluctance". Basically, it was the tendency for the phone handset suddenly to weigh fifty pounds when it came time to make cold calls. Of course, I never did really do that. One of the nice things about having a good network is that cold calls become largely unnecessary.

I find it interesting, though, that even networkers can develop a form of call reluctance when it comes to following up on referrals. For some reason, even the warmest of warm calls brings on a state of anxiety and their response is to ignore the opportunity until it turns cold.

And then they complain that they never get any good referrals.

So, what are some of the underlying "illnesses" which exhibit the call reluctance symptom and what prescription do we need to cure these maladies?

  • Stranger Syndrome. For whatever reason, we still hear our mom in the back of our head saying "Never talk to strangers". For us, every call to someone we don't know is a cold call. It doesn't matter if our contact told us that they are ready to sign a contract with us. We still don't know them and we would rather lose a contract than take the chance when we call of them saying "Who are you again?"
    Cure: Get an introduction. Ask your referral source if they would be willing to make an introduction. Of course an introduction in person is best, but even an "e-introduction" is better than nothing.
  • Imposition-itis. We really don't want to be a bother. Calling them up out of the blue runs the risk that they may be busy in that moment. Then we feel guilty for bothering them. They probably will have a negative opinion of us from the start which will forever taint this possible relationship. Much better to avoid the whole situation by not calling at all.
    Cure: Schedule the call. Drop them an email and ask for a time when it would be most convenient for you to call.
  • Sales Sickness. We've received a referral where we know that they really need to buy our widgets. In fact, they know it, too, and that's why they want us to call. Still, it feels like we are making an assumption by calling them up and basically asking for their credit card number. Maybe we should just wait by the phone for them to call.
    Cure: While, it's certainly possible that they might call us, it's also possible that they might call one of our competitors. So, make the call. Instead of presenting yourself as a salesperson, though (which makes it feel a lot like begging), instead put yourself forth as an advisor. "Bob told me to call you because he said you might have some questions about widget buying. How can I help?" If they aren't immediately on the market, they will appreciate your offer to help. If they are on the market, they'll probably let you know in short order.
  • Alignment Aphasia. While we really do appreciate the effort our networking connection has made to make the referral, from the sound of it, it might not really be appropriate for us. That being the case, there's no real reason to call.
    Cure: Wrong. There are lots of good reasons to call. Your friend may not have given you the right information. This can happen a lot with technical jobs. Even if the referral isn't right for you, you may know someone for whom it is the right referral. If that's the case, you get to help three people, the person who gave the referral, the person to whom they referred you, and the person to whom you introduce them. Also, if it isn't a good referral for you, this is a chance to better educate your referral partner so it's more likely they will pass you better possibilities in the future.
Remember, the main reason you have a network is to put you in contact with opportunities which will lead to greater success in your personal and professional life. If you ignore the referrals you receive, the situation will correct itself -- you just won't receive any more. So take the time to make contact.

The worst that can happen is you'll make a few new friends.

Photo credit: Christopher Thomas

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Networking the Job Fair

I mentioned that I spoke yesterday morning at the meeting of the Shifting Gears Cohorts. It was a great, responsive group (what every speaker wants) and I got a lot of great comments and questions from them. My friend, Steve Krogness, asked about how to network at a "Job Fair" and I thought I would share some of my ideas on this.

First off, for those who've never been to one, a job fair usually involves a number of companies setting up tables, in front of which, hopeful job seekers will line up in order to get a chance to talk with an HR rep who may or may not have positions to fill. The organizers may also have set up refreshments (which leads to mixer-style networking) and possibly some educational workshops or seminars. Let's ignore that other stuff for now and focus on how you connect with the company representative who's sitting behind the table.

In short, you can't.

That person, no matter how nice they are, for as long as they are sitting at that table, they are there as the embodiment of their company. As such they will tend to think of the people waiting in line as "potential employees" and not as "Bob", "Larry", and "Jennifer". So, is the job fair a waste of time as far as networking goes? No, but it takes a slightly different mindset. Here are a few ideas that might help it pay off.

  1. Connect in line. While you probably won't connect with the people behind the table (unless they are exceptional networkers themselves). You can connect with the other folks standing in line with you. Share tips, techniques, and war stories. Basically treat this as an impromptu one-to-one. Ask for their advice. Everyone loves to feel like an expert. You may walk away with some good ideas and a few new connections.
  2. Be an expert. If you have some skill that would be beneficial for other job seekers to know about (resume/cover letter writing, networking, business card design, meditation, stress reduction, time management, financial management, etc), use it as a mechanism to connect with the organizers. Find out who they are and offer to help by giving a short workshop. Organizers are often looking for speakers who are willing to volunteer their time. Even if they aren't interested, you at least get to stand out as someone who is willing to help.
  3. Volunteer. If you don't have expertise that applies, you can still offer to help. One thing you can do is offer to show up early to help the company reps set up and get organized. This is a good time to meet them as a person. Since you are helping them and not trying to get something from them, they are more likely to see you as a person, too.
Of course, you may still find success talking with the representative after waiting in line. I'm guessing, though, that meeting them as a person first couldn't hurt the process. Just keep in mind that networking is always about the other person. Make the interaction be about them and see where things go from there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Another Early Reason

I discovered a new reason for showing up early for the networking event today: Finding parking.

I spoke this morning at the Shifting Gears Cohort Meeting in Ypsilanti at Spark East. I've been in Ypsi before and always had a public parking lot where I liked to park near downtown. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that someone had put up a "one hour parking" sign over my spot (and I was speaking from 9 until 11)!

Fortunately, my good friend Steve Krogness, who arranged the speaking opportunity, knows Ypsilanti much better than I do and was able to lead me to a good spot. I even got back to the meeting in time to do a little networking. Thanks Steve!

So, show up early. There are so many reasons to do so.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Handing off the Baby

When we look at the list of things we have to do -- the projects, tasks, and chores of everyday life, both personal and professional -- we often get so caught up in the list, that we never think that there might be a better way.

Lisa and I brought our daughters Kaylie (3 years) and Abigail (3 weeks) over to my Aunt Karen's house on Saturday for a family gathering. The drive over was a little "challenging". Abby picked the most inopportune point in the ride to start howling about how hungry she was. Kaylie's complaints were a little more sophisticated, but even less easily met (she wanted to go to Disney World). By the time we reached my aunt's house, Lisa and I were feeling a little fragile -- especially when we considered that one or the other of us would be carrying Abby during the party.

As we pulled up, though, my sister-in-law and aunt met us at the front walk. By the time we got inside, Abby had been spirited off to be held by just about everyone at the gathering and Kaylie ran off to the basement where the older cousins were overseeing the play area for the other kids. Suddenly, what would have been an event full of our responsibilities, with the help of our loved ones, became a relaxing afternoon full of good food and adult conversation.

How wonderful.

This same thing happens in our lives everywhere. We focus on those things we have to get done -- sometimes skipping our networking in order to accomplish them. Every once in a while, though, we happen to mention our challenges to our networking partners. Suddenly, they are galvanized into finding a way for us to come out ahead. They have advice, referrals, and recommendations. If we care to listen to them, we just might find our burden lifted.

So, my challenge to you is to take a few moments right now to figure out what areas are currently on your radar where you might need some help.Then the next time someone asks about your challenges or goals, you can actually tell them. Who knows? That problem that was weighing you down might just be the thing which makes your connections stronger.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Limited Networker Field Guide: The Rumple-Feathered Trend Forgetter

"Why? What's wrong with my outfit?"
This is the another in the "Limited Networker Field Guide" series.

Name: The Rumple-Feathered Trend Forgetter

Environment: At almost any networking event, but almost never at a clothing store.

Behavior: This oddly plumaged bird shows up at a variety of networking events but has a particular affinity for those which cater to the technical mindset. While his general behavior while interacting with others may not be unusually limiting, the aforementioned plumage may indeed pose a challenge. The specific issue is that the Trend Forgetter's feathers just never seem to fit in with his surroundings. They may clash, be wrinkled, unkempt, ill-fitting, or even smell. Unfortunately, this means that, while they might be perfectly delightful individuals, their appearance brings forth emotions from bemusement to disgust in those with whom they would like to connect.

Broken Rules of Good Networking: First impressions are fair. We all know that no one should be judged purely by their appearance. Books and their covers, and all that. We also know that it's an unfortunate fact that we are so judged. Of course, there are some things that we just can't help, but that being said, there is absolutely no reason we can't look our best.

Of course, it's pretty obvious that clothing should be clean and unwrinkled. It should also fit well. I know that I've been guilty of wearing things that I've "outgrown" in the past. That lasted until I saw a video of myself doing just that. It wasn't pretty. The clothes should also fit the venue. I once heard a friend of mine criticized for wearing a dress shirt and slacks when most of the other attendees sported jacket and tie.

Again, I agree that no one should judge based solely on appearance, but the fact remains that those first impressions do count and are hard to shake. Our appearance conveys volumes to those around us. A dirty or unkempt appearance conveys a lack of respect for ourselves and for those with whom we would like to connect. Inappropriate clothes may convey the message that we don't understand social convention. While many of us like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, we don't want people to worry whether we have the social skills to treat their referrals properly.

Counter-Measures: For the most part the Trend Forgetter's behavior only hurts himself. We don't have to worry about him detracting from our networking efforts by his inappropriate couture. The main counter-measure that we need to keep in mind is that we ourselves shouldn't judge the book by its cover. Many times those who aren't fitting in because of their appearance will be the exact same ones who have no clue how to behave at an event. This is our chance to play the host and rescue them. We just have to take the time.

How We Can Help: As I just mentioned, one of the things we can do is just to treat them as a human being, just like us. A human being with his own quirks and eccentricities -- just like us. The only time this gets to be problematic is when we would like to introduce or refer the Trend Forgetter to someone in our network. Remember, a referral is essentially lending our reputation, so if they don't give a good first impression, it not only relects badly on them, but it also calls our own judgment into question. In these cases, a little prep-work with the Trend Forgetter might help. The conversation might go something like: "Hey, Bob. I would really like to invite you to have coffee with David Smith and me next week. David owns his own company, but he's pretty casual, so if you just wear some dress slacks and and oxford shirt, you should fit in just fine."

For those of us with a more technical mindset, having some clear parameters within which to work makes life a lot easier for us. Helping us fit in and be more comfortable in a networking situation will definitely go a long way toward strengthening our relationship.

Photo credit: Teddy Llovet

Friday, March 11, 2011

Breaking In

We've spoken before about the challenges of walking away from a conversation and came up with a few techniques on how to do that. Of course, to use these techniques we have to get into a conversation, first. This is one of those areas that makes a lot of people uncomfortable with attending networking events. Walking up to and striking up a conversation with other people is really putting ourselves out there. What if they don't want to talk?

Let's look at different possible groupings that we might see at an event and talk about how we might approach each one.

  • One person. This is an easy one. If you see one person standing off by himself (assuming he isn't talking on his cell phone), then you can just pretend you are the host of the party, walk up and say hello. I'll sometimes say that they looked bored or lonely so I thought I would come over to say hello. Introduce yourself listen to their response and then ask some of your prepared questions. A lot of times, if you see someone standing alone off to the side, it means that they are painfully uncomfortable with the situation, so you approaching them makes you the hero.
  • Two people. This one is a little more challenging and you really need to read their body language to know how or whether to approach. If they are shoulder to shoulder, facing the room, then feel free to walk up and say hello. If they are squared off to each other (face-to-face) or shoulder to shoulder facing away from the rest of the room, then they are usually having a private conversation which would be rude to interrupt.
  • Two people -- one friend, one friend-to-be. This is a special case of the previous group. In this case, one member of the group you are approaching is someone you know already. The nice thing here is if you can catch your friend's eye, then they are likely to invite you to join them and will also probably make the necessary introductions. Of course, still keep an eye on the body language. Even your friends have a right to a private conversation.
  • Three people. I met a young man recently who claimed that he loved to enter an existing three-way conversation. His method was just to walk up, wait for a break, and then ask for permission to join. He said it was much more efficient than meeting people one at a time. I think my only concern would be that it's harder to make a connection with three people than it would be for only one or two. There might also be a tendency to focus on talking about ourselves instead of finding out about them. Still, if you can make it work, then by all means, give it a shot.
  • Four or more people. The good thing about larger groups is that it as the number increases, it actually becomes easier to join in. The larger the group the less likely it is that they are having a private conversation. The downside is that it becomes almost impossible to make connections with individuals -- which is kind of the whole purpose behind going to the event in the first place.
Once you're in the conversation, whether it's a group of two or twenty. Remember that your goal is to find out about the other people and then decide if you would enjoy meeting them again. Chat, get their card, if it makes sense, and then move on. Save the long conversations for when you are seated over coffee at a later date.

Photo credit: Stock.xchng user ilco

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"How Can I Help?"

Yesterday we talked a bit about the importance of asking good questions when we are with a networking connection (or a potential one). We also talked about how we should have the answers to any question we ask since they are likely to reflect that question right back at us. Today I want to talk about one of the most important questions you can ask:

"How can I help?"

More specifically, I want to come up with a variety of ways we can ask it and which ones might be better to use than others. Let's look at a few.

  • "How can I help?" This also includes "What can I do?", "What would you like me to do?" and other similar direct queries about what you can do. Of course, none of these are bad questions. They all convey your concern to the other person. The only downside is that they can also cause the other person to freeze. Unless they have actually considered the question ahead of time, they might not be able to think of an answer. This is kind of like asking someone to tell you a good joke or the name of a good song. They undoubtedly have answers, but when put on the spot, won't be able to think of it.
  • "Who can I introduce you to?" Also "Who are you trying to reach?" or "Who would you like to connect with?" I like these a little more because they are a little more specific and therefore a little more likely to jog someones memory. It's also an acknowledgment of the importance of extending ones network -- a task with which you are willing to help. They still may cause someone to freeze up if they aren't thinking about who they need to meet. Assuming they do have a response, it might be a specific person ("Bob Smith"), a position ("the director of marketing at ABC Corporation"), or one of a group of people ("accountants practicing within twenty miles of Ann Arbor").
  • "Who is your perfect client?" or "What is your target market?" Where the previous category was an attempt to help them extend their network. This is a specific offer to help them get business. Despite the value of having a narrowly defined target market, many people will have a tendency to be a little too general. You may need to help them narrow things down a little bit with some follow-on questions.
  • "What challenges are you expecting in the upcoming month/year?" or "What are your goals for the year?" or "What do you hope to achieve in the future?" These are probably my favorites. While the other categories are offers of help, they tend to focus on the mechanism (extending the network, getting more clients). This group focuses on the ultimates outcomes. You actually get to help them chart the journey toward those goals. This ends up being a big win as far as strengthening the relationship goes.
  • "What's your problem?" or "What's your major malfunction?" We should probably avoid these. Even if we mean well, our intent may be misconstrued and cause more stress to the very people we are trying to help.
The best networkers know that their success is dependent on how well they can help other people succeed in their own lives. The best way to know how to do that is to ask. While the person we are trying to help may not always know the answer, sometimes just our asking can take them in a direction that they may not even have been considering. Sometimes that may be enough in itself.

So go ask some questions. You might be surprised at how quickly you can help the members of your network.

Photo credit: Sigurd Decroos

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Where Have I Heard That Before?

I was having lunch with a new friend, Meaghan McCann the other day over at one of my favorite networking spots, Marnee Thai. Meaghan is a Google Adwords expert. She teaches regular workshops about the subject and can really help people get their search engine marketing off to a good start. She's also a parent of two young kids (something we have in common).

One of the things we talked about over lunch was the challenges of the wonderful skills of mimicry that three- and four-year-olds seem to possess. Of course, by "mimicry", I mean "the tendency to repeat everything they hear, regardless of its appropriateness." While there isn't much we can do to stop the little ones from repeating lines from every movie and television program they've seen (my daughter Kaylie has a career in musical theater waiting for her), as networkers, we should always bear in mind that most of us still have a tendency to repeat what we hear.

And that can actually work to our benefit.

When attending events and one-to-one's, one of the best things we can do is to have a list of open-ended, feel-good questions tucked away in the back of our minds. If we can do this, we never have to worry about dead spots in the conversation. We also don't have to worry about becoming a conversational hog in order to fill them. All we have to do is ask another question (and actually be interested in their answer).

The cool thing is this keeps them talking about themselves (one of their favorite topics). The danger comes when they start to run down, they will repeat what we just said. Namely, they will likely ask us the exact same thing that we asked them. This can be a good thing. After all, if we just asked them who their perfect client would be (or who they want to meet, or what challenges they expect in the coming year, etc), then when they turn the question back on us, we get to tell them exactly how they can help us.

I do have some caveats with respect to this technique. First, it must always be done with sincerity. If you are asking them how you can help them, you had better mean it. If you don't, they will know that you are "techniquing" them without any real interest in helping them -- and they will take just about as much interest in you. Or less.

Second, any question that you have in your repertoire, you had better be prepared with an answer. You have to be willing to give up a little of yourself -- to let them see who you are. If you just say "I don't know" to everything they ask, they will get the impression that you are either trying to evade the question (making you deceitful) or holding yourself aloof (making you arrogant) or clueless (making you incompetent). None of these attributes make for a very good foundation upon which to build a strong relationship.

Remember, just like a three-year-old, a networking connection will often mirror your behaviors. Just be prepared for it. Understanding this phenomenon will help you communicate your own goals and needs as you actively search for ways to help those in your network.

Photo credit: Sigurd Decroos

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Small Beginnings

Even he was an unskilled white belt
at one time.
We're in the middle of "Black Belt Camp" down at Keith Hafner's Karate. This is a four-month period of intensified training and testing that Black Belt candidates have to go through in order to achieve their next belt. Over the course of this time we give each student a series of cumulative tests in a variety of areas. Starting out with the earliest exams, they have to show simple memorization of the requisite techniques. By the end of that period, they will have sharpened their skills to a dramatic degree, able to demonstrate not only rote memorization, but also the ability to deliver those skills with accuracy and intensity in even the most adverse of situations.

Now we could just test them at the level we expect for the final exam. Some schools do that, and I'm sure they do just fine. The way we do it, though, helps the students achieve a better success rate with a lot less discouragement in the long run.

To experience similar levels of success, new networkers should approach their networking skills in the same way. Too often I've seen people try to start out networking (or even attempt a new technique) and expect themselves to "hit it out of the park" right from the start. This can lead to a lot of frustration. Instead, I recommend setting the bar as low as possible at first. If you've never attended a networking event before, expecting to come back to the office with an actual signed contract (or return home with a new job) is unrealistic.

Heck, even expecting to make two new connections might be too much to expect right at the start.

Make your initial goals as simple as possible and yet still have meaning. If you are attending an event, set a goal to practice just one technique of networking at a gathering (like showing up ten minutes early, for example). If you can achieve that one thing, then the event is a success.

I know it sounds like we are "dumbing down" the process in order to make ourselves feel good. Ironically, though, just achieving success in one simple area can end up showing results almost immediately. Take the example of showing up early. If you can achieve this, then it's far more likely you will feel comfortable walking into the room in the first place. Also, given that there are likely to be far fewer people there when you arrive, you are much more likely to strike up a conversation with one of them -- a good start for a new networking relationship.

Of course, over time, you will add more techniques and skills to your repertoire. You will develop systems to refine your process and your results. Each will build on the layers you've already established until you will be networking with a skill which would have seemed impossible to you that first day you walked into the Chamber networking lunch.

As our Grandmaster often quotes "Do not despise small beginnings". We don't expect our white belts to break boards with a flying side kick on the first day of class. Give yourself the same leeway as you train for your networking Black Belt.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Networking Sixth Sense

My buddy Al Bogdan is a photographer and he does an amazing job with portraiture. We love it when he takes pictures of our girls. I mean, Abby and Kaylie are certainly adorable, but Al seems to have a sixth sense about lighting levels and angles and all the little settings on the camera to bring out that adorability to the nth degree.

Great! So what does this have to do with networking?

A lot of new networkers look at the seasoned veterans and are as amazed at them as I am about Al. Of course, neither Al nor the advanced networker has a real sixth sense. What they do have is loads of experience. They've made the mistakes and they've paid their dues. Now they don't even really have to think about what they are doing so much as just doing it.

I think sometimes people who are feeling challenged with their relationship building complain about not being a "natural networker". It's the excuse they can give so they don't have to try or to be responsible for their lack of success. Guess what? Networking is not a mystical ability, or a natural instinct, or even an innate personality trait. I can't think of a single aspect of networking which isn't a skill which just about anyone can learn.

When Al first started taking pictures, I'm sure he shot just average pictures, just like I do now. Over time he devoted his energies to developing his eye and his technique to become a master photographer. Similarly, that person who seems to know everyone at the networking event now, at one time walked in knowing nobody and was wondering how they were going to sell their product to the next person they started talking to.

One of the best things we can do as new networkers is to look around for those masters in our midst and talk with them to find out what they know. We can learn from their mistakes and take a few shortcuts in our own path to mastery.

Photo credit: Al Bogdan

Sunday, March 6, 2011

You Always Know Somebody

Glenna Salsbury -- Great speaker!
At the urging of my good friend, Eleni Kelakos, this morning I attended an event with a new group. This was the bi-monthly meeting of the Michigan chapter of the National Speakers Association. The meeting itself was outstanding. The speaker, Glenna Salsbury, had an amazing amount of information for us on improving our "platform skills", specifically in the area of storytelling. Let's just say that if this is the caliber of value I can expect from these meetings in the future, I will definitely become a regular.

But that isn't what I wanted to talk about.

What I thought was interesting was that, even though I had never attended an NSA meeting before, there were several people there whom I had met at other networking events. And I'm not just talking about my friend, Eleni. There were at least three other people whom I had met or talked with on the phone before.

Thinking about it, I realize that it's been a while since the last time I walked into an event and didn't know anybody. I know a lot of people who have difficulty attending events for the very reason that they don't know anyone there. Isn't it great to know that maintaining a consistent networking practice will help that particular problem go away.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Treating Them like Babies

Our daughter, Abigail, is two weeks old and is, in general, a true delight and a wonder. She's a very sweet baby and is already teaching me lessons about life and (I know you'll find this a shock) networking. I've been amused to find the similarities between my infant daughter and several networking connections whom I've met.

Both have needs that they don't necessarily communicate. For Abigail it's because she only speaks in grunts and cries thus far. For my connections, they often won't communicate their needs because for them it feels presumptuous to tell others about their problems without being asked.

In both cases I need to address the needs that they are currently experiencing in order to be the hero. For Abby, if she's hungry, changing her diaper just isn't going to do the trick. Likewise, if a connection really needs new office space, then finding them speaking engagements, while perhaps appreciated, won't be solving their current major issue.

Of course, there are some significant differences, too. While it does me no good to ask Abby about what might be bothering her, that same question can help me understand where my networking connection is having their issues. Also, I've noticed that most of my contacts rarely scream at me when I don't get their needs exactly right.

While, of course, I don't think of the folks I meet as a bunch of babies, some of the lessons I've learned from taking care of Abigail certainly can come in handy. It helps to remember that everyone has their own needs which they seek to meet. If we put forth the effort to help them accomplish those goals we become a valuable person in their life.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Incomplete Networker

A lot of people tell me that I just don't understand how difficult it is for them to get out and network. After all I'm such a naturally outgoing person.


It's about at this point that I remind them that I am a computer programmer by training -- a training which did not include how to interact with the rest of humanity. I had to work to develop my skills and I continue to strengthen and refine them all the time. It's the only way I can see to keep and continue to grow a strong network.

We all make assumptions about networking. We see someone at all of the events and think "Wow! They sure are a great networker!" Of course, we might also find out that they don't ever follow up on the connections they start.

We might see someone whom everyone seems to know by name. Surely they're a great networker, right? Maybe. Of course, if they don't know anyone else's name, then the networking is only going one way. Or maybe they do know everyone's name, but if everyone doesn't also know that person's business, goals, and who would be their perfect client, then their network isn't going to be very effective at achieving their goals.

All we can see are the networking techniques that these folks bring to the events. If they aren't practicing the stuff that goes on before and after, though, then they probably aren't getting much out of attending the events. That being the case, they'll likely stop showing up at all in fairly short order.

These are the incomplete networkers. They've developed one or two of the concepts of a good networking practice, but they haven't quite got them all down yet. Now, provided that they continue to develop their skills, they aren't at a dead end. They do have to make that continuing effort to improve, though, or their networks will remain weak and stunted in comparison to what they could be.

And that's not likely to lead to success on either a personal or professional scope.

Photo credit: V. Flores

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Types of Events: The Breakfast

I guess I can't really call it a series until I have more than one post on the subject, so here is the second in my non-regular series about general event types and the tactics, tips, and techniques we can use to make them pay off.

As with the lunch-time networking event that we discussed yesterday, most breakfast gatherings follow a pretty predictable agenda:

  1. Open networking
  2. Breakfast
  3. Presentation
  4. Open networking

Also as with the lunch event, the final open networking tends to be fairly brief. Folks are ready to get into the office by that point and don't tend to linger, so don't count on getting all your networking done in that last chunk of time.

The biggest differences between a breakfast and a lunch gathering are twofold: The time of day and the guest list.

OK, before you say "duh!" on that first one, here's why it's important: The people who show up will often be sleepy and hungry. We have to be aware of that and have to adjust our behaviors accordingly.

As far as the guest list (attendees) goes, I've noticed that these early morning gatherings tend to have a little more of the "suit set" to them. Business owners and executives who won't have time in the middle of the day, will take time before business hours to get in some networking.

Tactics, Tips, and Techniques

As I mentioned before, many people will show up hungry and sleepy. Networking will not be the first thing on their minds. The location of the coffee and breakfast buffet will be. The first tip is not to be one of them. It's hard to network effectively when your physical needs are distracting you. Take a few minutes before you leave for the event to eat a little something and have your first cup of coffee (assuming that is your "wake me up" of choice). Yes, I know there will be food and coffee at the event. That's not why you are going though.

Most people won't thing to prepare like this, so they will make a bee-line for the coffee urns. Make sure you know where they are so that, one, you can direct people to them (making you a hero) and/or, two, you can station yourself near them so you can meet people who have just had their mood chemically adjusted. I'm not a coffee drinker myself, but I know many who are. That first sip in the morning brings a lot of pleasure. There's nothing wrong with associating yourself with those good feelings.

The fact that a lot of people are hungry means that they have a tendency to move toward the breakfast buffet as soon as it opens and from there to find a seat in order to get sustenance into their body. Usually I recommend doing your networking standing up for as long as possible, but for breakfast meetings a good rule of thumb is to split the difference. Spend about half of the time networking at the breakfast table. The downside is that it limits your networking to the one or two people immediately around you once you're seated. The upside is that if you aren't in the first rush when the buffet opens, you can then get your food and pick a table which is already almost full. You never want to discover yourself at an empty table -- wasted networking time!

Of course, you'll still practice the good techniques that you would at any networking event. Set your goals, act like a host, show up early, offer to help, etc. The time of day will just make you tweak those activities to fit in better with the natural behaviors of the other attendees.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Types of Events: The Luncheon

Networking events come in all shapes and sizes and each individual event has its own "personality" which can make it a better or worse opportunity for us. Still, we can group most gatherings into larger categories which all share similar attributes. This is the first of a non-regular series about the different types of events and some of the specific tactics, tips, and techniques to use when attending it.

The luncheon is the quintessential archetype of the networking event. Almost every networking organization has one and most of them follow a similar agenda:

  1. Open networking
  2. Lunch
  3. Speaker
  4. Open networking
Often that last networking is a bit abbreviated as most people are trying to leave the event in order to make it back into the office.

In my experience, a majority of lunchtime networkers are not the decision makers in the office. Instead you will meet a lot of sales associates, customer account reps, and business development types. Oh, you'll also meet a smattering of sole proprietors. This is neither good nor bad, just something to be aware of. If you are trying to meet CEOs and other high-level executives, unless the group specifically caters to them, you aren't as likely to see them at a networking luncheon.

Tactics, Tips, and Techniques.

As always, you should find out who the speaker will be. When you do, think of who in your network would enjoy learning more about that topic. Pass along the information to them marked "FYI". Alternatively, you can invite them as your guest (just be sure you are clear about  who's paying if there is a fee).

Of course, whether you invite a guest or not, it should go without saying that you should show up at least ten minutes early with a specific networking goal in mind. Remember that most open networking lasts around fifteen to twenty minutes. Showing up just ten minutes early effectively increases your networking time by about 50%.

Because it is such a networking tradition, the lunchtime gatherings also tend to attract a lot of first-time attendees and first-time networkers. Do yourself and them a favor by offering to help out and introduce them to the folks that you know. Be a host, even if you didn't help organize the event.

The lunch event is pretty much the standard against which all other networking opportunities are measured. Especially if you are new to the world of networking, the lunch event can be a great place to practice your networking technique.

You might even develop a few new connections, too!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

You Have to at Least Like Them

With some people it's instant chemistry.
With others ... not so much.
In the early days of networking, you would develop connections with someone based solely on what you thought you could gain from them. You connected with those in power or who would someday be in power strictly based upon the benefit you could gain from that connection. Sometimes that meant you had to overlook your own personal tastes in who you associated with. Maybe it meant you had to hang out with jerks, or boors, or boorish jerks. If so, that was the price you had to pay.

Maybe that's still true for some people to this day, but maybe it isn't necessary for most of us. In fact, maybe it isn't even advisable for most of us.

The most powerful networking today is between people who actually want to help each other. Guess what? That also means they usually like each other, too.

Think about it. If you don't like someone -- you don't have to hate or even actively dislike them -- if you don't gain some amount of pleasure from being in their presence, then how likely is it that you will want to do something for them out of the goodness of your heart? I'm guessing not very. After all, you have enough people in your life who you like and respect who would also appreciate your attention. Is that wrong? I don't know. All I do know is that no matter how hard you try, you just aren't going to truly like everyone.

Oh, and I'm not even saying that there is something particularly wrong about them. Believe it or not, two perfectly delightful people might just not get along.

This is the reason that I tell people that, when they are at a networking event and meet someone new. First, of course, they should strike up a conversation to try to learn a little more about them. If, however, they discover that they don't actually enjoy talking to this new person, it's perfectly acceptable to bring the conversation to a close without expressing any interest in continuing it at a later date.

You know what, though? In the years that I've been networking, the number of generally likable and friendly people I've met far exceeds the number whom I would rather avoid. I figure that's a good thing. I'd much rather fill my network with friends than try to network with jerks.

Photo credit: Katie Brady