Another industry meet-and-greet, another name tag. Most of us consider networking a necessary evil—a stiff and sterile exchange of superficial banter and business cards.
Here are six rules that should bring the humanity back to networking:
Rule No. 1: Think Small
The many benefits of small gatherings should be obvious, but if not, consider the “two pizza rule” from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who thinks that any meeting attended by more people than could be fed with two pizzas won’t be productive. The same logic applies to networking events. How many people will you actually follow up with after a day exchanging dozens of business card? And how many will actually respond? It’s easier to build a real connection over dinner than a handshake and card exchange.
Rule No. 2: Try “Medium Talk”
In a 2016 story for The Science of Us, writer Jessie Singal advocates elevating standard cocktail-party small talk to “medium talk” by asking people slightly off-kilter questions: What’s your least favorite part of your job? What was the last project you worked on that failed? Raising the stakes of casual conversation and being more honest about what you’re doing builds trust. Better still, both parties are more likely to remember the interaction, and learn from it.
Rule No. 3: Play the Long Game
Rather than stress too much about making a strong first impression, consider an introduction to be just the start of a longer relationship. “I do not care about first impressions,” venture capitalist Rich Stromback told the Harvard Business Review. “Everyone tries to look right and sound right and they end up being completely forgettable.” He should know: Stromback has earned the nickname “Mr. Davos” for his omnipresence at the annual global networking event. “I’d almost rather make a bad first impression and let people discover me over time than go for an immediate positive response. I’ve seen research that suggests you build a stronger bond over time with someone who doesn’t like you immediately compared to someone who does.”
Rule No. 4: Always Be Curious
How did mega producer Brian Grazer become one of the most well-connected and powerful players in Hollywood? By maintaining a deep and abiding curiosity about, well, everything. In his 2016 book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, Grazer explains the value of “curiosity conversations”—in-depth interviews he has conducted over the years with dozens of successful people whose expertise lies outside of entertainment. For Grazer, this has meant spending hours with luminaries like billionaire Carlos Slim, for example, or criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. But the benefits are the same even when the subjects aren’t quite so high-flying. “Anybody can have curiosity conversations,” says Grazer. “You could start with your neighbors. Ask genuine, thoughtful questions. If you keep doing that, and start creating a constellation of dots in the world you're living in, they'll connect and change your life. They'll offer you opportunities you never thought existed.”
Rule No. 5: Think Outside the Cubicle
Indeed, your humble author knows this to be true from my own journalism career. I once needed to interview an up-and-coming rapper, but was getting nowhere using the proper channels. I shared my tale of woe with a fellow mom while waiting for our kids’ bus and learned that she worked as a talent booker for a talk show. She knew the people who represented my rapper and put me in touch with them. I got the interview and strengthened my connection to her.
Rule No. 6: Keep in Touch
Parachuting into someone’s inbox to ask for a favor is often awkward, especially if you haven’t interacted with them in years, or even months, but staying active on social media can help: If you “liked” a former colleague’s Facebook post a few days ago, or retweeted him last week, reaching out to connect for a real-life reason will feel less chilly and out-of-the-blue. And it offers a natural way in—“Loved those pics from your ski trip!” Business coach and author George Kao calls this “social media caring” and recommends curating your friend lists, particularly on Facebook, and creating groups so you don’t miss content from the people you care about most.