Network: an arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines
At first it felt really onerous to practice ‘networking’, but it gradually grew addictive and predictable.
To meet business owners for my research, I had to participate in their networking sessions.
It feels like such a mysterious concept. You always hear that to get ahead, you have to ‘network’ because it’s all about ‘who knows who’. But what does it mean to ‘network’ and exactly what goes on at a networking session?
We have the impression that networking is superficial and opportunistic, requiring lots of small talk. This is all true, but these are the very same things that can make it enjoyable. It’s an easy way to meet people!
It’s all about framing the process the right way. Small talk becomes interesting when you recognize that everyone has something of value to share with the world — and you take the time to learn what it is. “Hi, what do you do, tell me more!” Be really nosy, and suddenly the conversations gets really interesting!
I noticed that there is usually no overt ‘selling’ going on. No one is explicitly selling their labor, their product, or their services. Rookies impose that kind of pressure, and it’s a big turn-off. It makes me feel cornered and my instinct is to run away from that person and never contact them again (unless it’s an exceptionally good deal).
Instead, the fun part is hearing people’s stories and experiences. There is a transparency in the fact that everyone has a business proposition, and we’re there to learn what it is. If you find it dull (and sometimes it is), then excuse yourself to ‘get another coffee’ and find someone else to chat with. It is a ritual to exchange namecards so, if there is chemistry, it will be much easier to follow-up. Business owners have found clients and collaborators this way, but the key is to strike a friendly connection first.
A spider constructs a complex network of several different kinds of threads
It takes a lot of personal energy to exhibit interest in random people, especially if you are not a natural extrovert, but it is a habit that gets easier with confidence and it expands our life perspectives. Everyone has a story to tell, an experience to relate, challenges they confronted and solutions they found. There is magic in putting yourself in the spontaneous radar of other people. It is not always a high-yield process, but it can still be highly entertaining.
Networking can happen everywhere. I went to designated networking events (at the chambers of commerce and informal meetups) as well as conferences with networking on the side. I also emailed people directly or went straight to their shops. You can easily find people online but, if you connect in writing, you probably want to be upfront about your exact value to their network or be very explicit about what you need. After all, everyone has limited time and emails are the easiest thing to ignore (see my upcoming post “Emailing Strangers: Message in a Bottle“).
Something helpful that I learned is that you can’t let people’s expressions intimidate you from talking to them. It’s easy to think that people are approachable only if they have a wide smile on their face and a twinkle in their eye, but the truth is that most people look pretty blasé or closed up (well, at least from my experience in Singapore). So, be the first to say hi, and you’ll see the transformation! (If you don’t – which is rare, excuse yourself to get another coffee!)
It occurs to me that our survival may depend upon our talking to one another. — Dan Simmons, author of Hyperion