Professional Networking: Identification, First Contact & Creation Of A Connection (Pt. 1)

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Are you still stuck with the usual small talk at networking events? Here's what you have to be aware of to really make a connection!

Let’s start with a question. When travelling with an airplane which seat do you choose? Would that be the window, the middle or the corridor one? Take a second and answer. Now, would your decision change if you are in a smaller airplane where there are only two seats, window and corridor?

I will get back to that in a while. For now, I will give my definition of networking. It might be correct or wrong by your opinion, but I will build the article under the assumption that it is correct.

Networking is any act that strengthens your network.

Quite general I guess. So, how can you make your network stronger?

There are plenty of ways and plenty of approaches for each of the ways. Examples might include: connect with people who themselves have a great network (we’ll go through them later), diversify your network, interconnect people, create rapport etc. At the end of the day, is the answer to a simple question:

To whom can I offer what, that costs me
nothing (or just a little) to help him/her a lot?

And now let’s get back in our airplane to see how that works. Choosing the window seat leaves you with one person on your side and one window on the other side. If the person on your side is not interested in having a discussion with you then you are stuck with the window. Although the view out of the window is wonderful, the networking probability with the occasional superman flying outside is quite low. By sitting in the corridor seat, in case your person on the one side is not interested in a conversation, maybe the person on the other side of the corridor might be. It is although difficult to keep a conversation going across the corridor since it makes your conversation public and easier interrupted. So, under this line of thinking, choosing the middle seat seems to be the best option, allowing you to have two potential new contacts.

What would be the difference if there are only two seats per line, as happens in smaller airplanes. This time, putting yourself on the window seat doesn’t create much difference than the corridor right? In both cases you still have one person on your side (the other side of the corridor has the pre-mentioned disadvantages). But now, you have an answer to the question “What can I offer?”. Most people want to sit on the window and will eventually try to sneak a look over your shoulder in case you are sitting in the window seat. This gives you the opportunity to look them in the eyes and politely say: “I fly often and I don’t usually look outside so much anymore, would you like to swap seats with me?”. Just by positioning yourself differently, you have an opportunity to offer something that costs you nothing but creates a difference in another person’s experience. You get a conversation starter and even if the other person denies the proposal you still have created a positive atmosphere and a possible discussion topic (travelling). Think of that the next time you choose a seat in an airplane, in a table, close to the entrance of a club or in a chair participating in an entrepreneurial event.

Identification & Making A Connection

Now let’s start with the first step in networking: identification of the potential contact. We have basically two ends of a spectrum: meeting someone completely random and by chance or identifying a specific person and create a strategic plan to approach him. In between these ends you have different possibilities. For example, when you are searching for funding for your startup you might have a certain type of people you want to meet with but not a specific individual, namely venture capitalists, business angels or successful entrepreneurs.

To understand the spectrum we need to include a simple idea: the filters. As filters we define those circumstances that allow or block a certain category of people from being in a certain physical or virtual place. Imagine a conference with an entrance fee of 1200€. This entrance fee alone is a filter of the people that you expect to meet if you attend that event. In another case, think of a discussion event on Socrates method of education applied during the renaissance period. Stop for a minute and think the last two events you went to and identify the filters. When you do that, remember, some filters completely block some categories of people, while some others just make it less probable for them to appear.

A Case Study

In order to put the info discussed in the previous article and the one discussed here into a context, let’s discuss a case study:

Imagine you visit and you decide to go to an event that has the title Networking Event for Entrepreneurs, free entrance, food and drinks available. What portion of the people that you can meet there already have a great network and what portion doesn’t have one? Why would someone with a huge established network go to that event? Also, there is no price filter and the food is free, isn’t it? And what happens when one person that has indeed a great network appears? They immediately become the center of everybody’s attention. What effect does this have to the first and second barrier (getting in contact with them and getting into their mind – for more info check my previous article)? Yep, you guessed it right. It gets difficult to get some private time to talk to them and the second barrier goes up, blocking most people out. It seems that you decided to go to an event, spent 2-3 hours, get in an environment with low quality networking opportunities and (if lucky) meet a good potential contact in an environment that the barriers are high.

Now, if you think like a good networker, you can see that there is something wrong. But, imagine that you have identified that this important person you want to meet has decided to visit that event and this is your opportunity. How do you differentiate from the others in creating the first contact and a connection? First thing, you understand the filters and the barriers, so you know with whom you are probably “competing” with and which are the difficulties you are facing. Let’s break it down:

  • most of the people around you have a personal interest out of this person and are trying to ask for their advice, money, connections, experience, time etc.
  • most of them do not think of ways they can help this person, just of ways they can get what they want
  • there are too many people around them trying to attract their attention (First Barrier)
  • they usually want to be polite with everybody not stating out loud their opinion of them or their project
  • they know they are THE person in the room
  • your private time with them (if any) is limited
  • if they start giving his business cards around they will receive plenty of emails the following days (if not the same)
  • …. (the list goes on)

Remember, a great networker tries to always answer the question: What can I offer you that costs me nothing that can give you value. Don’t approach your potential contact with the mindset “How can I ask them what I want?” but instead, if you get some private time with them, try to understand what are the areas you can help them with. Perhaps they are searching for a great IT person in a specific field and you know one, or they are having difficulty with a specific area of their business and you know a good author that you can suggest to help. In the first 2-3 minutes try to find out how you can help them. Find a way to connect on a personal level; do they wear a watch that they are obviously proud of or a very old one that probably has a story behind it? Do it! Your goal is to create a connection, not to explain how he/she can help you.

You can do it any other time if you have that connection.

Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Professional Networking: Identification, First Contact & Creation Of A Connection

The lower your personal connection is in the pyramid, the better. Helping a person on a deeper level differentiates you from the others who just build up their self-esteem or giving them a solution to an unimportant problem. Is he a vegetarian and you know a good place in town? Tell him. Does she have a health problem that you had a similar? Tell her. If you found a way out of it tell her as well, we tend to connect with people that help us calm down when we experience a difficulty. Is their 18 year old daughter who likes to help people trying to decide if she will become a doctor or something else? Tell them about the book “Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money, and Community in a Changing World“. If you manage to connect on a topic as food, health and family you have done way more than more of the people around you.

At this point, I would like to address something that probably is on most of the minds reading this text: Doesn’t all that procedure make me fake? Don’t I seem to play and use other people’s problems, feelings etc? Just because you’re purposeful doesn’t mean it’s fake. It means it’s important. I put my focus on helping another person first, free of charge because I think it is important, and I do it with everybody. I don’t wait to meet this great potential contact to do it. I do it every time I meet someone new.

Now let’s go back to our example, dealing with the third point, that there are too many people around them. The easiest way to get in a conversation is by stating that you are doing that and making the people already in the conversation feel important. Simply say: Could I join your conversation? It sounds interesting. You put them in a position to allow you to join, which makes them feel important, and you are stating that they have an interesting conversation. Who doesn’t want to feel interesting?

Once you are in the discussion, understand what the person you want to meet is more interested talking about and follow up with questions that give them the chance to do so. I have spent hours talking with people without expressing any personal opinion, just giving them ways to express themselves. At the end of those discussions they usually wrap up by saying it was great talking with you, it was a very interesting conversation. People want to express their passion and talk about the topics they are interested in, not the ones that you are. Stay silent, ask questions, resist this urge to give this interesting fact about you that keeps popping in your mind. This way, you will create great connections and you will find out plenty of reasons to follow up with valuable information.

Getting A Channel Of Communication

Now, it seems the person likes you more than the other people around them. It is time to get their contact information right? Time to ask “How can I contact you?”. Doing so, you are getting into different possible traps:

  • The person does not like you, they were just being polite. They are forced to deny and they are probably feeling bad doing that in public. They refuse to give you their contacts in front of everybody.

So, now you have no access to them and you know what they say: people always remember how you made them feel.

  • The person does like you and gives you their business card. Now another guy sees that as an opportunity and asks for their card as well. Again, you put them in the uncomfortable position to give the card to someone they don’t want, or to refuse giving it in public.
  • The person does not like you but they give you their card either way making under public pressure to be polite and creates a mental note never to answer to you.

What did you do wrong? You did not think of how to help them, you did the opposite. You thought of how you can get this valuable contact info. You did not realize their position or cared about the emotional consequences of your questions. If you had realized then probably you would have asked something like I know you are a very busy guy and I don’t want to take much of your valuable time. With who from your office I could talk to in order to get this idea moving forward?

The Results

If the person doesn’t like you they don’t have to deny. They just give you the contact of another guy close to them. So you have a second chance to convince them (especially if you are not good in pitching) and you did not destroy the communication channel. Remember one of the basic rules of marketing: never finish an exposure without making sure you will have another one. Convincing people is all about educating them and some people need more exposures till you do that. Make sure you keep the opportunities open. Maybe their partner is easier to convince. If the partner is convinced then the Second Barrier in your desired contact’s mind will be lower, since it will be a partner of them suggesting your solution.

If the person does like you, but they don’t want to give their information to other people, they will give you their partner’s email and make a mental note to talk with their partner about you and ask them to create the connection in private.

You made them feel important by stating that they are busy people and that their time is valuable. You created a good feeling about you in their mind. You did not add an extra task on their schedule. You will bother someone else. Their partner might be informed about you before you contact them, lowering their barriers. You will be able to put the name of your desired contact in the email as the person who gave you this email address (lowering the second barrier). If you are thinking in terms of barriers you will actually put that info in the email’s subject line.

See how the simple thought of how you can protect your potential contact’s feelings can differentiate you from all the rest?

Lesson of the day: understand the filters and the barriers of every interaction and always think of how you can help another person first. Your goal is to create a personal connection; everything else can be done after.

Tip of the day: When you go to an event and you do not know who you are talking to, do not ask in which company they are working. Or what they do. Instead, ask “How was your week?” – that will give you the answer in a completely different way. People expect to be asked what is their job and after that they always put their barriers a little bit higher.



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