You should see the shudders I get from people when I talk with them about building their network. They almost visceral fear or loathing of the idea is evident on their face, and immediately their eyes gloss over like Brandon Stark’s when he wargs.
I can’t blame them, either. Most people approach networking as if it were this task that needed to be completed. Take the very first episode of Silicon Valley. Erlich Bachman walks up to our main characters and berates them for not talking to strangers. He mentions that there is a lot of money at the party, and they aren’t doing anything to forge new connections with anyone. He then sees Larry Page, who upon being noticed, exits like the Road Runner after seeing Wile E Coyote.
Qiwi Trails Hosting goes to an event in Springfield every year called Springfield G.A.M.E. – A gaming, arts, and media convention. It is, above anything, a networking opportunity for us. We’re looking for new clients, as most vendors are when they go to conventions. Most of our relationships are built with the other vendors, though, and not with the people attending the convention. But there’s a good way to approach other people at the convention, and a bad way.
It wasn’t til like 2 years in that I learned how personal business usually is. I thought you had to approach everything with elevator pitches and buzzwords.
There’s a guy at Springfield G.A.M.E. that approaches networking just as Chris described: Lots of buzz words, and doing the elevator pitch.1 He has a fantastic idea for how to sell himself: He built a tiny comic book that runs through some of the more generic questions asked during an interview, and he gives it away for free. This is a great take on an elevator pitch – it’s short, it’s succinct, it gets the point across. It allows people to approach him, already showing that they’re interested in what he’s saying, which is half of the sale. But each year, it seems like this guy has difficulty building relationships with other people.
Part of that probably stems from attitude, and how he interacts with people when his comic brings them in. A few years ago, I spent the entire convention trying to figure out how people were connecting with each other, and it has become the basis for how I network with others, and hopefully how you will approach others in the future too. One of the first things I learned was that you need to watch people’s body language. It may be unique to (smaller) conventions, but it seems that when people want to leave a vendor’s booth or table, the vendor tries to latch on to the conversation and hold it for as long as possible, probably in hopes of saving a sale.2 I noticed that when vendors were more relaxed, and allowed casual conversations to happen, people came back more often.
A prime example from 2014, I met up with two comic book creators who were selling their comic, Radiation Day. I’ve since become friends with the comic’s artist, Chris Yarbrough. His approach was to let people walk up, introduce himself, and discus the creative process, or his epic beard, or pretty much any topic anyone wanted to discuss. He didn’t try to hard-sell the product, and he didn’t try to keep people from leaving his booth by latching on to them with conversation. Everything was easy, and I saw people return to his booth multiple times, eventually buying a comic on their third or fourth visit. It was really something cool to see.
Conversely, the guy with the comic about his interview process, behaved a bit differently. Instead of sitting behind his table, he stood in front of it, so that nobody could just glance at his stuff and move on. They would have to interact with him if they approached. A lot of people veered around him as they approached nearby tables, or cut a wide path around him as they walked from artist to artist. I can’t say for sure that it was because he stood in front of his table, but that’s my best guess. He was also aggressive at wanting to talk about himself. When people were within 5 feet of him or so, he would step up to them, (and away from his product) to engage them in conversation. My own experience with him went something like this:
Comic Guy: Hi! Have you had a chance to check out my comic yet? It’s an interview I did of myself, outlying the most basic questions that are asked during an interview. I wanted to skip a lot of the hooplah when working with new clients, and I thought this was the best way to do it.
Me: Uh, no, I hadn’t. But I’d be glad to read it.
Comic Guy: Cool. Here you go. As you can see, I have a lot of experience as a “Jack of all Trades, Master of None!” Ha Ha! I’m an artist, of course, and I also do technical mentoring, and I’ve even helped a few technical guys do “the impossible” by laying out the logic of how something could work. I’m really looking for something that will allow me to put out my own unique vision of how narratives should work.
Me: Huh. That’s neat. Well, thanks for the comic.
Comic Guy: No problem, again, it’s a pre-interview where I try to answer the boring questions first. I think you’ll really like it. You know all those boring questions you get asked in an interview? Like, “Tell me a time where you…”? I’ve done my best to answer all of those in this comic, saving time when the real interviews begin. I want to be asked the real questions, like, “What kind of impact can you have on our company,” or, even better, just skipping the interview process and having someone read my comic and say, “You’ve got the job!”
Comic Guy: Yeah, it really is cool! I’m super excited about this, and not to brag or anything, but I’m positive that this is how interviews are going to be done in the future. No more presenting portfolios of work, or dealing with boring, mind numbing interviews. For artists, comics are definitely going to be the way people learn about you. You can ask/answer the questions, and show off your artwork at the same time. It’s really exciting.
Obviously that’s not a verbatim exchange, but it’s how I remember the meeting going. Every time I tried to indicate that I was ready to move on, (even including backing up from him; he was 20 feet away from his table by the time he disengaged) he tried to keep me involved, and he knew nothing about me or my small business. Networking like this leads to a sort of “scuzzy” feeling, where you don’t seem interested in what the other person does or who they are, but instead what they can do for you. It’s treating people like objects, and while it may be a good way to get ahead with some people, it’s not a good way to get ahead with a lot of people.
There’s an old paradigm that’s falling away in the digital age, and most people are starting to get swept up in the wave. Once upon a time, your co-workers were just people you saw from 8-5PM, and that was, for a lot of them, the only interaction you had. (Aside from maybe the company picnic or accidentally seeing them around town while grocery shopping.) Other than that, they were separate from your lives. Business clients even less so. But in 2016, everyone is connected in a variety of ways. Facebook friends are more than the people you consider a friend; they’re co-workers, business owners, people who play the same games as you, or strangers that your friends know. LinkedIn is a professional network designed to keep you in touch with co-workers. It’s almost impossible to keep your personal life separate from your work life now.
All of that says we’re in an era where the idea of knowing someone “just as a business contact” is going away. Local business is becoming personal. With the wave of anonymous online retailers and online businesses taking over formerly entrenched markets, the personal connection is required now more than ever. It will help you keep a thriving, vibrant network of potential clients who are interested in what you’re working on. But to grow that network, you have to be approachable as a person.
So if you’re going to approach an event as a networking opportunity, that’s great! But make sure you approach the people as potential friends; you’ll find your return on investment significantly better.
1. An elevator pitch is where you boil your idea down to its very essence, and try to sell it within two minutes, give or take. A very quick presentation of your idea to whet a person’s appetite for a more elaborate and well thought-out pitch or presentation.
2. This behavior was less common after a sale had taken place, although it did happen.