I was going to call this post “How to network with human beings”. But I don’t like that word (and I’m guessing you don’t either). Networking sounds sleazy and self-serving.

I was also thinking about calling this post “How to meet famous people”. I’ve met some semi-famous folks in the tech world; but writing a post about how to do that is just silly. Truthfully, getting your photo with a well-known personality is more about bragging rights than making a meaningful connection.

What you really want to do is meet interesting people and build relationships with them

Too often, we think about networking  in terms of “what we can get”: we network so we can improve our employability, so we can move up the ladder, or to fill our emotional needs.

These events aren’t for “networking”: they’re to make friends. – Tim Smith

Here’s what you should focus on: building relationships with interesting people. Find people you can collaborate with, people you can learn from, people you can form friendships with and people you might want to work with in the future.

It starts with attitude (a story about me pouting in a corner)

When I was in my early 20’s, I attended a small conference (30-50 people). When I arrived, I felt shy. I watched the outgoing people talk and joke, and generally not notice me. I went into classic social victim mode: this is where you locate the nearest bowl of chips, sit down, and pout about how nobody likes you.

Sitting in the corner, eating my chips, I had a realization: “I’m being so selfish: I’m expecting all these people to cater to my emotional need for belonging.” This changed my thinking: when you’re in a social situation you need to focus on what you can give to others, instead of what you want from them.

How to be a social leader

Maybe I’m more selfish than most, but I constantly have to remind myself that it’s not about me, it’s about others. This mental model transforms me from a victim to a social leader.

Here’s what I started doing: instead of hoping someone would approach me, I approached people and introduced myself. Instead of talking, I listened. Instead of excluding, I included. Instead of guarding my emotions and appearing stuck up, I tried to be open and friendly. If someone seemed to genuinely not want my company I just moved on to the next person.

Sometimes you’re a roamer, sometimes you’re an anchor

I lean towards extroversion: I could go to an event and meet 200 different people, and by the end of the night I would be more energized than when I arrived. This makes me disposed towards roaming: jumping from group to group, conversation to conversation, person to person.

Roaming is fine; it’s the social equivalent of speed dating. You meet a lot of people, in a short period of time. But as you develop your social leadership skills, you’ll recognize situations where it’s best to stay put (to be an anchor). This normally occurs at events where most of the folks don’t know each other, and there isn’t much conversation or activity in the room.

In these situations, I try to be an early initiator, anchor myself in one place, and gradually include more and more people in our conversation. This has a number of effects:

  1. People feel cared for, because you’re not trying to move on (and you’re including them in a bigger group of people).
  2. You become the de facto leader of the group. You’re the one people are looking to to keep the conversation going, to ask interesting questions, and engage the group.
  3. When others notice that there is a “bigger” group of 2-3 people to join, and that there is an inclusive leader, they’ll be more likely to join.

One skill to get you started: asking good questions

You want to be able to ask good questions, and then follow-up with more relevant questions. Asking questions does people a great service: they don’t have to worry about what to talk about – you’re providing the direction.

Don’t be afraid to ask general questions! Asking general questions is a good strategy because they lead to deeper questions. Here’s an example from a real conversation I had at a conference:

“Where are you from?” “Las Vegas.”
“No way! I was just in Vegas. I heard you can ski there, is that true?” “Yes, actually I skied there quite a bit this year. We have a small hill just outside of town.”
“How long have you been skiing?” “Since high school. I grew up in Utah, so we had a lot of good local places to ski.”
“I’ve been wanting to snowboard at Park City, Utah. Have you been? What’s it like?” It’s amazing! If you get a chance, you should definitely go.

For programmers and designers a good question could be: “Do you have any side-projects that you’re working on?” Business folks and managers might respond to: “What opportunities are you seeing in your industry?”

Asking good questions (and then being able to follow-up with other, relevant questions) is a skill that requires practice. It will feel awkward at first, but as you continue to practice, you will get better and better at it. Soon, it starts to feel like second nature.

Want to hear more?

I regularly send my email list tips like this.

Pssst: A closing thought

People that meet me at events, have heard me speak, or listen to my podcast sometimes get the impression that I’m socially confident all the time.

But I’m just like you. I get nervous, I get shy, I feel awkward. I try things, and fall on my face. I say embarrassing things, and regret it later. Sometimes I go to an event and nothing clicks.

If I’m doing anything “special” it’s this: I keep actively trying to improve the way I interact with others. I remind myself that “it’s not about me” and force myself to focus on the other people I meet. I practice, practice, practice asking good questions (I honestly have fake conversations with myself in the car).

I’d like to help you with this too. Leave a comment below, or send me a tweet at @mijustin about a struggle you’ve had with social events. I’d love to listen and help if I can.

That's me!Cheers,
Justin Jackson
@mijustin

19 thoughts on “Stop networking at events

  1. “What you really want to do is meet interesting people and build relationships with them”
    …couldn’t the word Networking just mean doing this?

    I don’t know if it’s a tech industry thing, or if it happens everywhere, but we seem to have an expiration date on terminology and job titles.

    An interesting read though Justin. Good advice on authentic networking™

  2. Thanks Mike!

    I think networking has come to mean something sleazy and self-serving. It has always been about meeting others to “advance your own career” and in the process we’ve missed out on the real opportunity: to make new friends.

  3. Most of the feedback I’ve received on Twitter has been focused on this line from this post:

    “I’m being so selfish: I’m expecting all these people to cater to my emotional need for belonging.”

    It’s interesting: I didn’t realize so many people had the same struggle as I did. Lots of us desperately want to be “liked” when we go to events. The problem with this is that it’s hard to be focused on others when you’re thinking about yourself!

  4. Another great post Justin!
    I used to hate ‘networking events’ and in fact still don’t attend them regularly. I feel the conversation is very surface level most of the times. In saying that, It’s all in how you approach the event and the opportunities to meet new people.

  5. Great post Justin, we hold regular seminars on a monthly basis with networking being another part of it.

    After a while we began to see why and how these events were beginning to turn sleazy. To make a change the regulars who attended for the sole purpose of ‘makin’ sleazy’ were no longer allowed to attend – the general walking around and talking about themselves, trying to get some sort of step ahead generally for their own well being.

  6. Networking isn’t supposed to be a one-way street. If we connect and you can help me get a better job, great! But I should be providing you with value, too (note that “value” doesn’t have to be any sort of sleazy “social capital,” it could simply be friendship).

  7. Couldn’t have put this better Justin. The thing that gets me up every day isn’t what I do, that can be fairly routine even with an innovative and creative tilt in mind. What gets me going is the people I have the opportunity to meet. That’s the gift.

  8. Standing and chatting in a group of lovely folks at a software conference, I happily turn to the woman next to me…
    Me: I hear a slight accent – where are you from?
    Her: I am American.
    Me: Oh, but where is your family from? I can’t place the accent.
    Her: We are American!
    Me: Oh… I’m sorry, what part of America?
    Her: *storms off, visibly upset*

  9. Ha ha! Tyler, this is awesome. Brock recognized you from my post. You and I met at FOWA in Miami (where this photo was taken).

    I’m glad you’re a part of the movement!

  10. I came across this on twitter and found this to be a valuable and encouraging read. I’ve always felt socially awkward during events, and I just tell myself that I have to do better next time…which doesn’t usually work out, because I wasn’t really making any changes to my outlook on the situation. Thanks for the wake-up call! It’s comforting to know that others experience the same emotions, even if they come off as socially confident.

  11. Hey Kimberly! Thanks so much for the nice comment. I’ve found it takes two things to get good: practice + reminding myself to focus on others every time.

    When you go with the disposition of “it’s not about me” and “who can I help?” everything changes:

    – You’ll notice that lonely person by the punch bowl, and strike up a conversation.

    – You’ll be speaking to someone, and they’ll leave you standing alone (awkwardly). You’ll take a second, and whisper to yourself: “It’s not about me” and go to the next person.

    – You’ll no longer feel powerless: you have the power to serve.

  12. Another out-of-touch ‘networking’ article (slapping a different name on something doesn’t not make it that thing) dismissing the introverted as inferior, completely disregarding the physiological differences between int and exts, the latter of which you admit yourself as one. Congratulations, you don’t have the same difficulties as many of us do!

    You could afford to read Susan Cain’s “Quiet”…or if you already have, try to learn something from it.

  13. Thanks for your perspective.

    I’ve actually heard from a lot of introverts who have appreciated this post. In which parts do you feel I am “dismissing the introvert as inferior”?

  14. I suppose I’m quite an introvert ~ large, high-energy events leave me absolutely sapped, I actually feel myself physically retreating and becoming smaller and more transparent….
    I’m always initially freaked out walking in, and I *always* have to remind myself (and by that I mean I have to do some serious psyching up!) that I *do* have something these other people need/want/are interested in, and they are missing out if I don’t go and talk to them!
    So, Pmort, remember, you *do* have something special…you ARE someone worth talking to. I know it’s exhausting, I know it’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. Good luck!

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