Not sure how to network? Learn how to meet people without pushing them away

Finding common ground

There are plenty of articles for introverts about how to network, but there aren’t too many that try to help extroverts network properly. The assumption is that we’re outgoing, gregarious and can’t wait to talk to people, which means we must do it properly, right?

Wrong.

Extroverts tend to be the worst networkers because they rely too much on their outgoing personality and their love of talking to people to carry the day. The problem is, most extroverted networkers — at least the ones who haven’t learned how to network — are just shotgunning business cards around their networking events. As a result, they’re about as unmemorable as the people who never actually speak to anyone.

Introverts have their own problems with networking. Not because they sit in the corner and refuse to speak to people. Rather, they may spend most of the event only talking to people they know because it’s more comfortable. Remember, introverts aren’t shy; they just drain their batteries talking to new people. (Hint: The tips on how to network below will help you slow that drain a little bit.)

The whole point of networking is to meet people who can help you in your career or help your company. It’s not to make a sale or beef up your contact list. You’re not there to find your next client or see how many business cards you can collect. And you’re certainly not there to add subscribers to your email list.*

*I once met a guy who took every business card he got at a networking event and added those people to his email newsletter. Without permission. He got a lot of angry responses after he did that a few times.

This article offers tips on how to network for both extroverts and introverts. We’ll also talk about how to keep from pushing people away from you, either by being overbearing or only sticking to the people you know.

As web designers and developers, being your own boss means occasionally challenging yourself to step outside that comfort zone. While it’s truly awesome to spend the day hunkered down, working on the couch in your favorite socks, don’t forget about human contact. That’s how networking happens:

Learn how to network: The steps

The goal is to help you overcome some of the problems you face in networking outside your comfort zone. We’ll talk about:

  • How to network and why it’s important.
  • Steps to successfully network for personal and small business efforts.
  • Real world tips and examples, especially when networking online
  • How to network with social media.

How to network and why it’s important

3 men sitting at a table looking at laptop

There are three simple rules about networking that apply to all small business marketing and sales, as well as personal branding.

  • People buy from people they like and trust.
  • The point of networking is to build relationships.
  • The point of a networking event is to set up your next meeting.

At your typical networking event — business after hours, morning events, cocktail parties — the goal of networking is not to find your next client or investor. That should be the furthest thing from your mind.

Let me say this as clearly as possible for the people in the back: You will not make a sale at a networking event.

 

For one thing, most people who attend networking events are already wary of being pounced on by every multi-level marketer and salesperson in the room. Just because you chatted with someone for five minutes at a busy event doesn’t mean they like or trust you. They may not even remember you. So don’t think you can sell to them.

Bottom line: don’t show up at a networking event with a selling mindset. You’re there to build relationships, not make a sale. You’re there to meet people who you can get to know better.

The purpose of networking is to build trust

There’s an adage in job hunting that applies here: Your cover letter doesn’t get you the job, it gets them to read your résumé. Your résumé doesn’t get you the job, it gets you a phone interview. The phone interview doesn’t get you the job, it gets you an in-person interview. It’s the in-person interview that gets you the job.

The same goes with networking: Your introduction doesn’t get you a sale, it gets you a coffee meeting. The coffee meeting doesn’t get you the sale, it gets you a lunch invitation. Lunch doesn’t get the sale, it gets you a sales demonstration. It’s the demonstration that gets you the sale.

Which means you don’t show up at a networking event in sales demo mode. You show up because you want to meet people for coffee.

If anything, the people you meet at networking events are not your clients, they know your clients.

Do you want to meet angel investors in your company? Angel investors typically don’t go to your run-of-the-mill networking meetings, but their friends do.

Do you want to meet the buyer for a large manufacturer in your area? She doesn’t go to networking meetings, but her former colleague might.

Do you want to meet the person in charge of payroll at a marketing agency? He certainly doesn’t go to networking meetings, but his business development person does.

The whole reason to network is so you can meet the people who can introduce you to the people you actually want to meet.

 

If you went to a networking meeting with a sales mindset, and those people were your target audience, then the meeting was most definitely a failure because you didn’t meet any of them.

Steps to network successfully for personal and small business efforts

Many people treat networking events like a numbers game. They attend as many as they can and try to meet as many people as possible. It’s a high-energy sprint from start to finish as they interrupt conversations, introduce themselves, hand out business cards and flit off to the next conversation.

This is a terrible way to go about it.

Your goal at a networking event is not to see how many business cards you can collect or how many you can give away. I’ve known sales professionals who base an event’s success on how many business cards they give out. This is absolutely the wrong way to think about it.

A better strategy is to look at how few business cards you give away.

That doesn’t mean being stingy with your cards and refusing to give them out. Rather, give out a business card only when you meet someone interesting enough to meet with later. When you meet someone you’d like to have lunch or coffee with, ask them for a card and give them one of yours.*

*But don’t refuse to give one if you’re asked for it. Certainly give them one, because it’s rude otherwise.

The goal is to give out two or three cards and come away with two or three cards. That’s because you only want to meet two or three people who you gelled with. You had such a great time talking with them, you’d like to talk further, and maybe you were even a little disappointed when the event ended. So you hand them a card, ask for one of theirs and you meet later.

With all that in mind, here are five steps to take to have meaningful conversations and give out those two or three rare business cards.

Step 1: Focus on talking with people for more than five minutes

Talk with them, have conversations, get to know them. Find out interesting things about them and start to build that rapport that makes you want to spend more time with them.

Step 2: Schedule one or two follow-up meetings

An event is successful if you schedule one or two meetings after the appointment: coffee, lunch, or even a Zoom meeting or phone call. You don’t need many meetings to come out of that event. Don’t try to schedule ten follow-up meetings. Just stick to one or two. If you’re trying to plan ten in an hour, you’re only talking to people for six minutes, and you’re back in that shotgun mindset.

Step 3: Make interesting conversations

A networking event is one of those few places where it’s socially acceptable to ask people what they do for a living. It’s even expected. Except everyone asks that question, and no one really stands out. So ask unusual questions of the people you meet. You’ll remember their answers, and they’ll remember you as the person who asked those fun questions.

  • What kind of job did you want when you were a kid?
  • When was the last time someone amazed you?
  • Who was your favorite teacher/professor?
  • What do you wish you knew when you were a teenager?
  • What’s your favorite non-business book or podcast?
  • If you were to teach a class on your favorite subject, what would it be?
  • Cake or pie. (Seriously, ask people this and then ask why they picked it. I’ve seen — and started — several spirited discussions as people defend their answers. Also, “pie” is the correct answer. — Erik)

Step 4: Introduce people

You can really show people that you’ve paid attention when you introduce them to someone else. If I’ve just met someone, I’ll ask them their name and what they do, so whenever someone new joins our conversation, I can introduce them to the new person: “This is Charlotte Davidson. She owns a catering company and specializes in corporate events, but she got her start doing weddings.”

Being able to recite all that shows Charlotte I’ve been paying attention to what she said and that I was focused on her. Nothing will make a person feel more appreciated than if you remember their name, their job, and something interesting about them. They feel heard and think you’ve been interested in them the whole time. (This is where practicing active listening becomes so important.)

Step 5: Make strategic introductions

As you continue to network, you’ll meet people who share the same interests with other people you just met.

For example, 20 minutes after you meet Charlotte Davidson, the corporate caterer, you meet Carl DeLong, an event organizer. You’ll tell Carl, “Come with me, I want to introduce you to someone.” You and Carl track down Charlotte, and you introduce them and explain why they should meet.

“Carl, this is Charlotte Davidson. She owns a catering company that specializes in corporate events. Charlotte, this is Carl DeLong, and he does corporate event planning. Since you’re both in the corporate event space, I thought it was important that you two meet.”

You can also do this in an email if you meet someone and the other person is not readily available.

Real-world tips and examples, especially when networking online

People networking over zoom

I’m going to let you in on a little secret since you’ve read this far.

Successful networking is more than just meeting people.

 

Meeting people is not networking. Meeting people is just, well, meeting people.

I can go to a baseball game or basketball game and introduce myself to a few hundred people every single day. Does it get me any business? No.

I can go to a networking meeting of some sort every morning and meet a few hundred people every month. Does it get me any business? No.

In fact, several years ago, I attended three different networking meetings per week, both morning and evening. I’ve met hundreds of people and had enough coffee to float a battleship.

The one secret I’ve found to being a good networker is helping people get the things they want before getting the thing you want. And this works whether you’re meeting someone in person or via Zoom.

Going back to our example, my priority in networking should be introducing people like Charlotte and Carl to each other. That is, once I meet Charlotte, one of my goals should be to help her meet people that will grow her business. I need to keep an eye out for people like Carl so I can introduce them to Charlotte.

My goal should never, ever be to find out who Charlotte or Carl can introduce me to. That will come later after I help them achieve their goals. In fact, the more people I help, the more my own goals will be realized.

You can call it whatever you want: blessings, karma, cool points, whatever. But I have found that the more I help people, the more people will help me in return. The more bounty I create, the more bounty I receive.

I do it by practicing what BNI (Business Networking International) calls “Givers Gain.” That is, if you give, you gain. If you give a lot, you gain a lot. If you help people, you will get helped. Not just the people who you helped directly, but the people who were indirectly helped because of your actions.

If you make this a regular habit, you’ll see your “returns” grow more than if you had just pursued the “I’ll help myself first” strategy that so many people often do.

It all starts with the first time you meet someone at a networking meeting. After you get their name and occupation, ask them, “Who are you trying to meet?” or “How can I help you?”

The idea is to get them to tell you who they’re trying to meet so you can immediately start working on their behalf.

No one OWES you a favor

This is the tricky part of this philosophy: Once you have done something for someone, you have to forget about it. Banish it from your thoughts. Don’t keep track. Don’t tally favors.

Never, ever tell someone, “You owe me one.” Because nobody owes you.

If that’s the mindset you carry through your networking efforts, you will find yourself alone in your journey because no one wants to be a part of that kind of system. No one wants to have you keep tabs on them, tallying up every favor and introduction like a miser hunched over his ledger, counting his coins. It’s boring, tedious, and wastes a lot of energy you could be using just to grow your network.

If you keep track of the favors people owe you, they’ll make sure they pay it immediately and never help you again. And this will become part of your reputation, which will make people avoid you.

But if your reputation is that of a person who helps other people and never expects to have the favor returned, people will flock to help you. You’ll become a trusted resource for the people trying to help other people. They’ll contact you to see if you know anyone they can introduce their friends to. You’ll be the person who makes connections happen.

As you become a connector, you’ll become more connected, and you’ll hear about work and job opportunities that are actually in your wheelhouse. People will share them with you, whether you’ve helped them directly or not. But they won’t do that if you’re keeping track of who owes you one.

How to network with social media

Social media apps

Social media has been a great way to network with others, but it is not an ideal replacement for networking. It’s an additional tool, not a replacement tool.

The best way to network with social media is to just reach out and connect with a possible networking target on Twitter or LinkedIn. This could be the creative director at a marketing agency, the CTO at a software company, or whoever you’ve set your sights on.

I like social media for this purpose because, with phone and email your person might have a gatekeeper who filters their messages. That means if you connect with your person on Twitter or LinkedIn, you’ve got a chance to communicate directly with them.

But that means no stalking, no pestering and no inappropriate conversations.

Instead, just have regular conversations with the person. If they ask questions, answer them. Ask them questions. Share news and blog articles that may interest them. Keep it casual and light, and don’t go straight for the sales pitch.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve connected with someone on LinkedIn only for them to hit me with a sales pitch as the very first communication out of the gate. They clearly didn’t take the time to get to know me, ask me questions, or even see if the thing they’re selling is something I would ever need in the first place. So I’ll usually disconnect with that person immediately.

If you want to establish a relationship with someone, think about your initial communications, like the initial meeting at a networking group. Communicate with them, share ideas, and ask if they would like to meet up for coffee (if they’re local to you) or a Zoom call.

There’s no magic formula. Just ask them. “I’m a big believer in networking and getting to know important people. I was interested in learning more about what you do and wanted to see if you were free for coffee/a Zoom meeting. This isn’t a sales call, and I won’t try to sell you anything.”

And then just have your regular meeting via coffee or Zoom, just like if you had met this person at an in-person or online networking meeting. Ask them questions, actively listen, and offer to help them meet anyone they’ve been looking for.

An added online bonus

A social network I joined in late 2020 during the pandemic has been an interesting way to meet people. It’s called Lunchclub, and it’s been a great way to meet people I would never have met in real life.

You enter your information on the website, and it will use its matching algorithm to match you up with someone you might have a connection with.

I’ve met TV writers, graphic novel writers, business owners, event planners, linguists, concert organizers and software developers. I’ve met people from Los Angeles, Boston, Vancouver, Hungary, the UK, Mexico and South Africa. I’ve talked about used bookstores, humor writing, TV writing, comic books and even hip-hop klezmer music.

You can sign up for an invite and get into the system. (Full disclosure: This is my invite link, and I get club points if you join. Those points get me absolutely nothing.)

You can even specify the types of people you want to meet, as a way to meet possible clients or vendors, or even just to meet interesting people. (That’s the option I select; it’s never let me down.)

The whole purpose of Lunchclub is to meet new people. There’s no fumbling around, trying to figure out if that person really does want to meet later. You just have the conversation, and if you want to meet online later, you can set that up as well.

Conclusions/next steps

If you’re not sure where to start networking, check with your local Chamber of Commerce first. See if they offer any business after-hours or morning coffee events, especially for non-members. Start there and see how things go.

Next, look for local networking groups. There are groups like 1 Million Cups (I help run the local Orlando chapter). BNI (Business Networking International), or any local Meetup.com group that matches your interests.

You can also just network with people you meet out “in the wild,” like standing in line at a coffee shop, at the gym or even bumping into someone at the grocery store. Just ask them, “So, what do you do?” and take it from there.

Ask for a coffee, lunch or Zoom meeting, and get to know them. Build a relationship, gain the other person’s trust and work to help them achieve their goals.

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