Last week, I was invited to attend a “networking event” at a swanky hotel in Beverly Hills. Those in attendance were (presumably) all alums of a certain school, and all working, or trying to work, in the Entertainment Industry. I was invited as a guest of an alumnus of the school.
Networking Events are essentially this: a bunch of strangers, thrown into a room with liberal amounts of social lubricants (booze, maybe tiny snacks) and asked to become friends. Eventually, it’s hoped that you become such good friends that connections that lead to business opportunities. Maybe.
There are a ton of great resources out on there on how to network well. I could share a thousand links, but here are some of the basic ideas:
- Be helpful (Lifehacker).
- Seek kindred spirits (Marie Forleo & Susan Cain).
- Genuinely connect (Sean Stephenson). The last one is a longer video, but it has some powerful lessons that extend beyond mere networking.
I love this stuff. Inevitably, when I’m out and about, I can’t help but people watch. And even though there are some masterful networkers out there, I learn the most from people who are perhaps (I hope), still learning.
Meet Mr. Red Shirt
I am standing with my friend and host. We are chatting, sipping on drinks, when a man in a red shirt breezes past us, stops, backtracks and yells, without preamble or introduction: “What do you do?” You practically can hear the tire squeal sound effects as he does this. “What do you do?” He does not ask this politely, nor does he observe any social niceties. He just yells in our general direction. “WHAT DO YOU DO?”
I’m not sure if Mr. Red Shirt is speaking to me or my friend, so I smilingly reply, “Stand here and look pretty. Is it working?”
Mr. Red Shirt looks down at me with a look of confusion, harrumphs noisily, and then focuses his gaze to my friend. Apparently he has been seduced by the sexy title on my friend’s name tag and wants to know more. My friend is a polite guy, so he has a brief conversation with this man. Mr. Red Shirt simply walks away when he feels the conversation is done. AWK-ward…
In the world of Star Trek: The Red Shirt Dies First
I cannot help but think of the Red Shirt in Star Trek. If you’re familiar, you know what I mean. (If you’re not, check out this montage.)
Don’t be that person. Mr. Red Shirt was not there to see me, that’s clear. To me, and to most, his behavior equates to social suicide in this situation. Who wants to talk to a person who demands to know your utility before you’ve even shaken hands? Who wants to help a person who demands to be helped before you’ve even offered?
How Not To Be Mr. (or Ms.) Red Shirt
A quick introduction and a handshake, before turning his attention to my friend, would have been welcomed. Social niceties go a long way towards making a good impression. You don’t have to kiss everyone’s ass, but you do need to play nice in a sandbox filled with strangers you might want to do business with someday. Now, I might be wrong – Mr. Red Shirt might have had an agenda to meet a few specific people – my friend among them – and the rest of the room be damned. Plowing through the crowd, only to screech to a halt and demand information is great comedy, and terrible manners.
Networking is something we all must do at some point in our careers. It’s how we meet people whose paths we might not ordinarily cross. When you’re in the room, remember there’s a structure to these conversations. Adhering (even loosely) to this outline will help to smooth the conversation, and prevent (most) awkward situations.
Here’s my 5-step “formula” for Networking:
1) Say “Hi” and Make Small Talk: a quick hello and a handshake, exchange names (even if it’s on your nametag). Small talk is necessary. It’s the transition between walking away and learning more about the person with whom you’ve chosen to speak.
- What brings you here tonight?
- How did you hear about this event?
- Pay a compliment (if it’s sincere).
2) Listen & Learn: Find out a bit more about what your conversation partner does, who they work with and what keeps them up at night.
- Tell me a little bit about what you do?
- How did you choose that specialty?
- Why did you decide to create that business/service?
- Who are your ideal clients? What are your ideal projects?
- What’s the one thing that would make the biggest difference for your business right now?
3) Act From A Place Of Service: If you can offer help, do so. Listen to what your conversation partner is saying. Watch his/her body language. If there is someone you can introduce them to who might be able to help solve that issue or advance their work, offer to make the introduction. Be of service, vs. looking to be serviced. You know what I mean.
4) Exchange Information & Exit: Ask if your conversation partner has a card, and make the info exchange. If you’re making an intro or a connection, reiterate that offer. Say thanks for the conversation, so nice to meet you, and move gracefully on.
5) Follow Up: Make good on your promises. If you told someone you’d make a connection on their behalf, do so. Go through that stack of cards and send e-mails and/or connect with them on social media. My rule of thumb for this is to follow up between 24-48 hours after the event. After that, we start to forget who we met and they start to forget us. We’re human.
You don’t have to be (or feel like) the Red Shirt of Networking. The process I shared is just one way through the quagmire that can be networking. It doesn’t have to be awkward, or scary, nor do you need to commit social suicide in order to get through the night.
I’d love to hear what you do to make networking less awkward and more fun. What are your tips & tricks for networking without Red Shirting yourself? Comment below!
I LOVED this blog and I don’t even think I like networking (yet). I am signing up! On reflection I think the main reason I have not liked networking events in the past is because of people who do say “So what do you do?” within 10 seconds of meeting. Great article!
Thanks for reading and for your wonderful comment, Cat! It’s tough to get used to the “So what do you do?” right out of the gate. It still jars me sometimes. I think it happens because everyone’s there for a similar reason, so you just get it out of the way. But there are so many other ways to ask that question without it being an awkward conversation starter. If I’m at an event that gathers lots of different types of folks, it’s fun to start with something completely different, like “How did you find out about this event?” Then we can ease into the business side of things.
I hate those “networking” events where I don’t know anyone and it just feels awkward to blindly walk up to people. Inevitably I sometimes end up using the “what do you do” that you described. The 5 step system makes it so much easier, I might just go browse for an upcoming meetup. Great article Ratana!
Thanks so much for your comment, Steven! I agree; the events where you know no one can feel pretty awkward and challenging. When I find myself in similar situations, I make a game of it. I’ll challenge myself to meet 10 or 15 people before the end of the night. That way I’m not allowed to hug the wall and sip on my drink, I have to get out there. I hope the 5 steps are helpful the next time you’re at a meetup. Let me know how it goes!!
thanks for sharing this experience Ratana! networking still horrifies me but I’m doing my best to push myself to go out more often to these events, and your helpful tips are just what I need to prepare myself.
Great tips! I’ve been to so many and I swear they don’t get any easier! Appreciate the tips and definitely plan to use them!!!