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From the cutting room floor - Networking tips

A reporter recently asked me to comment on do’s and don’ts for effective networking.  A few of the tips made the final article but many of them didn’t.  Here are the ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were:

While networking is not my beat, so to speak, I can certainly chime in with a few tales of ineffective networking: very often at academic conferences.  Since people at such conferences are often looking for jobs, you would be amazed at the amount of inappropriate, clumsy, naive, awkward and just plain silly networking attempts that go on.  Herewith, some don’t stories about networking. 

Avoid inappropriate or awkward followup 

Example: I met a Korean candidate wannabe at an academic cocktail party, and while he was standing next to me, one of my friends asked where I was staying.  Not thinking anything of it, I replied with the name of my hotel.  Imagine my amazement when the hotel phone rang at 3 in the morning, only to find that my wake-up call had come from the Korean student.  Tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt, I assumed he was confused by the time change and had no idea what time it really was.  Nope.  Turns out, he figured that this would be a good time to call since he knew I wouldn’t have other appointments!  You can imagine where THAT resume went.

Trying to fake more knowledge about your contacts than you actually have. 

When you finally get to meet someone who you think is important, it is all too common to feign more knowledge than you actually have about what they do.  Please don’t do that.  Your contact knows exactly what they have done, accomplished and worked on over the years, and your trying to fake it only makes you look spectacularly clueless.  Example:  Students I meet who start gushing about how much they love my research, and upon further questioning it turns out that they have me completely confused with my good friend Anita McGahan, who works on industry analysis topics, not innovation and growth topics.

Talking too much, particularly about the fascinating subject of yourself

So there you are, and you are finally meeting up with someone who you think would be a good contact.  So what do you do?  In the attempt to make that person want to remember, help and befriend you, you go on and on about every remarkable – or more likely, not so remarkable – thing you’ve done recently.  It’s boring.  It’s vaguely insulting.  And all it will do is get your business card dropped in the trash. 

Claiming acquaintance with people who you think are in your target’s social circle whom you do not actually know

Again, out of a desire to seem plugged in or more well networked than you actually are, it is common for people to say things like, “Oh, yes, Joe has mentioned you often,” thinking that your target will admire and appreciate this mutual friendship.  Here’s the problem.  If Joe and I really are friends, and I say something like, “I met your friend Jordan at a work thing the other night” and I then find out that Joe has no idea who I am speaking about, that claim is stone cold dead. 

Obvious tag-sniffing

At every conference, people’s status is spelled out more or less by what’s on their name tag, whether it is their affiliation, company, status at the conference or whatever.  It is really tacky to walk up to someone, examine their tag, decide they aren’t worth your time and leave.  It’s OK to peer with subtlety at tags to identify those who might be of interest.  It is really NOT cool to leap across the room to introduce yourself to the Big Shot whose tag you have just identified.  It is also rude to interrupt a conversation the Big Shot seems to be enjoying to introduce yourself.  If the Big Shot looks as though he or she is looking to make an escape from a conversation (see below) however, you may be able to help them free themselves by entering into a conversation with you.

Subsection to the aforementioned:  do not assume that the Big Shot’s spouse is unworthy of attention.  It’s happened to me more than once that someone who I thought was an executives spouse is, but turned out to be a heavy hitter in his or her own right.

Oh, all right, some tips for effective networking:

Prepare your elevator pitch

When you are at a networking event, and someone asks you what you do, they are not looking for an infomercial.  A carefully chosen few lines that introduce you and explain the benefits of what you do are sufficient.  For instance, it is much better to say “I work designing strategies that allow companies to keep their key people” is much more interesting than “I work in human resources for a major pharmaceutical firm”.

Don’t be afraid to say hello to other people first.  They’re probably there to network too

The easiest way to approach people if you don’t know anyone is to strike up a conversation over something that is clearly mutual – as in “Oh, you’re from New York as well?  When did you get in?” or “wow, they went to a lot of trouble with the set up for this event”.  I would avoid anything heavy as an opening line. 

Don’t cling

A networking event, unless you’re having the business equivalent of love at first sight, is about meeting lots of people.  So do not dog your newly met friends’ every step.  Chat for a few minutes and then move on.
Know your date or spouse before even THINKING about bringing them to a networking event.  Some are assets – they’re pretty / attractive / funny and can help make a nice impression, particularly if other people’s spouses are there.  Some are shy, unhappy to be there, and boy will you hear about it afterward.  As a general rule, I don’t bring my spouse to heavy networking events if I don’t think there will be people there that he can converse with. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for a business card clearly and directly, as in “could I have your card?”

If that makes you uncomfortable, you can always say something like, “I’ll send you that article on the fall of Wall Street – do you have a card?”

Subsection:  card etiquette in different cultures differs greatly.  If you are in Japan, for example, the protocol is to hold your card in both hands with the words pointed toward your opposite, who takes it, admires it, says something about it or you and then repeats the action with their card. You receive it with both hands, and make a comment, such as “I hear that is one of the largest banks in Japan”.  If you are networking internationally, find out the protocols before you go. 

Develop a graceful way to extract yourself from the clingy (see beforementioned tip)

Getting a drink, visiting the restroom appropriate to your gender, spying someone you actually do know across the room and having your cell phone ring are all non-offensive mechanisms for getting away. 

Think a little bit before you go to the event what you would like to get out of it

Then, if you can see who will be there, try to identify who you would like to meet and why.  The “why” should be a two-way street – if you’re going to build a successful relationship, you need to have something to offer as well.  Think about what that is before going.

Scarlett O’Hara’s generation had the right idea about food and drink

In the old movie Gone With The Wind, the heroine was admonished not to eat too heartily at a local party.  It isn’t a bad suggestion at a networking gathering.  If there is food and drink involved, as a general rule stick to finger food OR something in a glass. It is hard to talk with food in your mouth, impossible to shake hands when one has a glass in one and a plate in the other, and unattractive to shake hands covered with the grease from the coconut-baked shrimp you just had.  It isn’t a wedding – it’s a networking event! 

Follow Up

There is no point networking if you let the relationship go cold.  So do something with those business cards.  Write a note (or email) reflecting on the conversation.  Offer to follow up on a question that came up.  Suggest an article the person might find interesting.  And remember, collecting business cards is meaningless until you use them to build a relationship.  Finally, do not promise things and then fail to do them.  If you say you’re going to send a book or article, send it.  If you say you’re going to call, call.

Networking is pretty much unavoidable except for hermits and students of advanced mathematics, I suppose.  So having some good ideas about how to approach it can be a vital part of your personal toolkit for success. 

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