The Networking Trick You May Not Want to Hear

You’ve attended five startup networking events in the past three months, trying to make your 60-second business pitch sound conversational and smart. Unfortunately, all you have to show for your efforts is a stack of business cards — not one person you met has become a client or referral source. Exasperated, you tell yourself that networking doesn’t work.

I hate to say this, but you need to hear it: It’s not them; it’s you.

Fortunately, you can right this ship pretty easily — as long as you’re willing to accept that successful networking will never be a quick fix. It’s not about shifting into new circles of influencers or eating where you think the angel investors hang out. And forget about your apps for a second; they aren’t going to network for you. 

The only way to build lasting business bonds is to practice the old-fashioned art of communication.

Learning to Listen

When was the last time you headed to a Chamber of Commerce function, ready to listen rather than blather on about your business? Many people miss major opportunities to forge relationships because they see networking events as places to sell their business ideas. No one wants to hear about your new widget two minutes after meeting you. 

However, they’re probably open to sharing all sorts of personal information, from the new puppy they adopted to the house they’re trying to rent out. If you ask great questions and listen, you can learn what makes them tick. Later, you’ll have a reason to text to ask if they ever found tenants or whether their pet has become a little less rambunctious.

A listen-first approach always works because it gives others a chance to talk about themselves and offers you a conduit to discovery. Of course, you have to be sincere or risk sounding blander than Alexa.

Becoming the Network Star

If you’re ready to grow your network rather than just add to your stack of business cards, incorporate these behaviors into your encounters, both on and off the clock. 

1. Know the brand you stand for.

What’s your personal brand? Jot down everything that makes you unique and that you want people to remember about you. Perhaps it’s that you love to volunteer or that you’re a tech nerd. Focus on delivering your brand experience every time you meet a new person.

To take that a step further, align your brand around the value you add to others — something deeper than a list of skills on LinkedIn. “A positive public image can help your business, but it must be real,” advises Hope Horner, founder and CEO of on-demand video production company Lemonlight. “In the early days of networking, center your conversations on how your offerings can improve people’s lives or businesses. And follow that path.” The better you understand the value you bring to the table, the more likely you are to create memorable rapport.

2. Play for keeps.

Stop siloing all your networking events. They’re not just independent appointments; they create a collection of experiences that keep enhancing your reach. And remember you can network anytime, not just when you head to a trade show. Networking happens everywhere, from your neighborhood summer block party to the waiting room at your son’s orthodontist’s office. 

Sure, you have to be open to talking to people in order to make this work, but it gets easier. Aim to make new acquaintances on a weekly basis. Share stories and connect on LinkedIn, but don’t stop there. Message new contacts occasionally about subjects you discussed. Be patient as your relationships develop. Who knows? These individuals could become your key to a million-dollar sale or a lucrative position years down the road.

3. Pay it forward always.

Karma is real, my friend, and if you put in the hard work, you’ll reap the benefits. For instance, if you meet someone you think would hit it off with another person you know, offer to make the connection. Better yet, set up a lunch or coffee date so the three of you can chat. 

Your goal shouldn’t be to see anyone as your ticket to riches. Instead, view yourself as his or her supporter. Then, look for ways to fulfill that commitment. Eventually, your good deeds are sure to come back multifold. Bonnie Marcus of Women’s Success Coaching recalls a woman she knew who lost her high-paying job. She snagged another in a month and a half, thanks to a loyal team of friends she’d previously helped. That’s solid networking in action.

4. Take on the role of networking social organizer. 

As you become more accustomed to the art of networking, put yourself squarely in the driver’s seat by hosting an event on your own. This could be a huge conference sponsored by your company, but it doesn’t have to be. Inviting a dozen of your most influential and closest connections to a wine tasting in your apartment is perfectly acceptable, too.

Not only will this give you the chance to foster your connections, but everyone at your event will see you as a leader, too. That’s a powerful role to play. It’s also one that can lead to more business and a better reputation. “Hosting your own events enables you to build relationships more strategically than a conference or mixer typically allows, because you’re controlling the guest list, and as the convener, you get ‘credit’ for the connections your guests make with one another,” notes Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist and professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

Expect networking to be a slow build at first. If you put in the relationship-building effort, though, this will be followed by a steady stream of rich interactions with people you actually know and care about, not just names and faces on a social media platform.