EDITORIAL

The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Making Business Networking Less Awful

tl;dr: If you want meet other humans you should act like one. Sorry, Demerzel. 

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When I was a younger, more positive person, before the eternal darkness of reality crept into my soul, I used to “network.”

And by “network” I mean that I used to go to any industry event I could. Mixer for PR professionals in NYC? Just try and stop me. You’re having a wine tasting at a law firm and one journalist is there? Out of my way, plebes! I must pass you, as I must go to the very important place to do the thing.

The Ed Chronicles

And that was my life for many years. Endless events with the same sorts of people who were doing the same sorts of things. The repetition of “getting to know your industry peers” felt like I’d met the same three people a hundred times, having the same four minute conversation with each of them, with the occasional enjoyable moment where I’d meet someone equally exhausted.

I remember going to one party in particular, meeting a VC that I’d always wanted to meet, and spending 5 minutes with him before he, of course, got talked to by 4 other people.

Because that’s what it is. That’s what most networking is.  For some reason every industry — and I’ve talked to people about this across venture, sales, PR, engineering, management consultancy and real estate — has this obsession with having to be at things.

There are a few exceptions: I’ve heard good things about Dreamforce (despite a friend who said they’d rather go to drink-Clorox-force), SaaStr has been good since it was a smaller event, and while CES is a total nightmare to attend, I usually get a lot out of it by simply meeting reporters. But I hear very few other people with a genuine smile saying “yes, let’s go to that.” In reality, their smile says “please, they have my family.”

The surrounding Dreamforce parties are a great example of this phenomenon. “Oh, you simply have to go to the Fumplr party” they say, which ends up being a one-drink-ticket thing in the back of a bar where nobody can hear each other. Droves of people, far from the convention center, lanyarded zombies sipping Lagunitas IPA, talking about the amount of badges they scanned, scanning for leads.

Then there are the PR networking events, usually featuring one or two reporters each with the two or three PR people they like, with others circling like vultures not wanting to pitch just wanting to mention what they’re working on.

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The worst place to have an honest discussion, visualized.

This isn’t even an attack on the events themselves. There’s a platonic ideal of what networking is—it used to be the three martini lunch (which was still bad). But something changed, and now “networking” is going into a room full of people and magically conjuring up a deal, or a contact, that will lead to money. People will talk about their “networking skills,” or being a “master networker,” which usually means “they happen to know a lot of people or have turned up to a lot of things and thus their face is known.”

And there’s value to that in the same way that being retweeted into the right people’s feeds is enough to get you some sort of reputation.

End The Obsession

I’m not saying meeting people is bad, even though leaving the house is a terrible idea. But the obsession that people have with networking “events” has got to stop. They are a mostly profit-centric or ego-centric hell—built to make someone feel like they’re “bringing people together.” But in fact, putting them in a crowd is just as distant as sending an email.

The way I switched this up was to refuse to go to any “networking event” over ten people, unless I was required to for work reasons or the moral support of a friend. If it isn’t a private function in an area where you could hear each other speak, I won’t go. The exception is if it’s quasi-networking—where a bunch of people I like are going to a party. And I mean a party party where no real work happens.

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Popular millennial day-time quasi-work confab (green juice not pictured, taxes and fees apply).

Perhaps I’m a snob, but it seems how most people network just doesn’t… network. No meaningful connection is made. Business cards are exchanged, and then absolutely nothing else happens. You forget who you’ve met, you lose a few business cards, and your feet hurt.

How To Make Meeting Other People Less Horrible

I’ve found the following helps me cut down a lot of the bullshit from the necessity of networking.

Here’re the best venues to meet people in a business sense:

  • One on one.
  • An intimate dinner with no more than eight like-minded people.
  • Casual drinks at a place everyone likes and can hear each other.
  • If you’re at a conference, in a private room or at least off away from the crowds.

Here’re the worst venues:

  • The afterparty of a conference.
  • At a conference, especially if you yell and chase them down.
  • In the bathroom. Seriously, I’ve had someone try to talk to me about work while I was peeing.
  • I’ll be honest, there are about 100 more.

Finally, here’s a way to network outside of the usual spray and pray methods that may seem obvious to some, but painfully new to others.

  1. Try and get an introduction, then try and meet them for coffee or drinks.

It’s pretty rare that anyone closes a deal or gets a job in one meeting. However, having a meeting with them where they actually turn up and you talk about stuff is going to be way, way more useful than yelling at each other at an afterparty when both of you are tired and dead inside. The point is that you get them one-on-one in an environment that isn’t inherently work related.

  1. Wherever you meet them, think about where.

There’s this website I recently discovered called Google, and it’s amazing. They also make a thing called “Maps” where you can look at things on a map. So, say you’re meeting someone from Bloomberg, based at Pier 3 in San Francisco. Don’t say to them “Hey, why not come to meet me at my offices in the Mission!” Getting coffee? Plant Coffee is literally in Pier 3. Getting drinks? Hard Water is also in Pier 3, and it takes reservations.

Now, they may suggest these things, but guess what? If you’re the person to say “Hey, you work here, we should go here, the place a distance away that can be measured in seconds,” that makes them think “Hey, what a good person, they have saved me time and energy.” The downside (you may think) is that they can get called back to the office at any time.

Guess what? You’re also a genius, and a conscientious individual, because you just stopped them having to grab an Uber to get back to the office.

So find out where they work, or ask straight up where they’re going to be just before your meeting, put it into Google Maps and say “here are three places.” And try and get a reservation. You are aiming to make this as easy a meeting to take as possible.

  1. Don’t Set An Agenda

To give you the PR example here, if I meet a reporter I usually wait a bit before saying “so, look, what exactly can I send you you’ll care about?”— and that’s if I even have to say it. It may just naturally be a part of this odd human thing called a conversation.

Usually, they’ll tell me naturally, as if we were talking with our words. But goodness me, do not go in there and think “OKAY BY THE END OF THIS MEETING THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN OR ELSE.” If you do that, you’re really going to blow it.

What you want to do is set a reasonable expectation of an outcome. In the case of me meeting a reporter, this is one of a few things (though likely no more than two of them):

  1. Establish I’m not a totally horrible PR person, and I’m a human being.
  2. Learn what they want to read in their inbox.
  3. Increase the likelihood that when they see an email from me they will read it despite getting 300 emails a day.
  4. Have a fun time for both.

Most likely, you are going to have this meeting and it will lead to an email or phone follow-up. Working on closing new business? You’ll probably answer questions and they’ll be gauging you as a person, but I am sure you will have to follow up with something afterward. Maybe even set another meeting. That’s life. This meeting is not going to get you exactly what you want, ever.

  1. Don’t Talk About Work Immediately

One time I went to a meeting with a PR person in London when I was still a reporter, and they literally sat down, said hello, then said “so my clients are…”.

This is an extreme example, but one to learn from. You can read the person fairly easily—if they sit down and say “so let’s talk about this contract,” I’m guessing that even if you’re at Local Edition they want to talk about the contract. But if they sit down and start talking about their day, talk about yours! Have a human conversation about things.

Think of it as a non-date—a meeting of two people who are having drinks or coffee, and wait for an opportunity for them to bring up whatever it is you’re working toward. This may take a bit of time. This may require you to exercise patience as you excitedly wait for them to let you get to work. You may even end up spending most of the meeting not talking about work.

That’s good. That’s networking. You’re learning the other person, you’re getting to know their personality. Perhaps now you  will know how to email or talk to them better. And when they do bring up work, you can then address it in a more intelligent way. This isn’t manipulative; it’s actually the opposite. It’s compassionately understanding how a person exists in the world and talking to them as such. 

It’s respectful.

Now, if you really want to bring up something, wait a bit and do so naturally. “Hey, so, what’re you working on at the moment?” is a pretty easy way in my business to find out what someone is working on as a writer, which will give you valuable clues as to whether you should pitch them at all. Sometimes you may find out that the answer is “nothing for now,” which is invaluable intel and saves you time. Sometimes they may say something that makes you say “oh, crap, I have the perfect thing.”

In a new business sense, you could just ask them what they’re dreaming of with X project. It may spark a conversation with you that’s useful. The key is to not just yell what exactly you want. “HEY! WHAT CLIENTS DO YOU LIKE SO I CAN GET THE PEOPLE TO PAY ME TO EMAIL YOU” is a bad choice, for example.

  1. Play Off Embarrassing Stuff With Class

I once met with a TechCrunch reporter and immediately managed to spill coffee all over my hand. I then picked up some napkins, only for it to happen again and this time go over my shirt. I patted myself down and said “well, that’s pretty embarrassing,” despite inside screaming curse words and turning beet red.

The reporter was incredibly gracious and laughed, because I didn’t (as I’ve seen happen) get pissy or grumpy about it. Believe me, I was mortified, but most human beings are compassionate enough to say “wow, that’s embarrassing for them,” or “oh it’s just coffee.” Don’t make a big deal out of it. Apologize, and move on, unless it’s unavoidable like “I just cut my finger with a knife.” In which case, well, that’s gonna be something bigger than a meeting.

  1. If It Doesn’t Work Out, Don’t Get Annoyed

I’ve had quite a few new business meetings and journalist meetings where I’ve come out of it saying “well, that was a total waste of my time.” I’ve also known that 10 minutes in, despite the meeting being an hour. If you feel a meeting is just a total waste of time immediately and you’ve scheduled 30 minutes, and you work out immediately it’s a waste, stick it out. Unless the person is a totally boring one, you can find magic there—transfer it from business to pleasure. You’re having coffee, enjoy the coffee, talk about your day, get to know them.

Maybe you’ll make a friend. Maybe you’ll have an enjoyable time. Sure, it didn’t make you money, but as we trundle closer and closer to the grave, we rarely get the chance to just be.

In Conclusion

Networking as a concept has its roots in manipulating reality. You can’t do that. All you can do is understand that within the chaotic world there are ways you can put things together that might have a positive outcome. You can navigate the chaos, but you cannot control it. Try and enjoy networking. Try and meet people and have meaningful conversations about whatever you want, because if you do that, the business will naturally follow.

If you make everything with some strict, forceful goal, you will live a boring life.

You may succeed, but you’ll end up a burned out husk.

Anyway, have a great Thursday.

Ed Zitron is a human who has been on lists. Head here for more Ed on Mattermark.

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© Mattermark 2017. Sources: Mattermark Research, Crunchbase, AngelList.
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