As the world gets noisier, connection has never been more important. Social media has led us to believe that being connected and connection are the same thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Who cares how many Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, or Twitter followers you have if those numbers don’t translate into real-world relationships? The same is true with traditional networking, which is inherently self-centered, and can make you feel gross. True connection, on the other hand, is generous and service-oriented, and will be far more beneficial to you both personally and professionally. Here’s how to network and not feel like a slime ball.
Know what makes you tick
In order to see the world through a different lens and hear it with a different ear, you need to rethink the way you interact with everyone and everything in the world around you. That begins with self-awareness. Being honest about your strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, motivations, and fears, not only gives you insight into yourself but provides a window into how others perceive you, both personally and professionally. Are you a listener or a talker? Do you project confidence or arrogance? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Knowing who you are and how you roll will inform how you connect with others more authentically. If you’re an introvert, for instance, you probably dread the thought of spending hours at big, crowded events where you’re expected to talk to as many strangers as possible. So don’t do it. Opt for smaller, more intimate gatherings where you can get to know a smaller number of people more deeply. Or go to the big gatherings, but with the goal of having fewer conversations with a select few people. For social butterflies and wallflowers alike, it’s all about the quality of your connections, not the quantity. Less is almost always more.
What’s your thesis?
Your thesis is what you stand for, who you are and what you believe in. Think of it as your personal mission statement or an “elevator pitch”—a bit or two about yourself that you should be able to utter instantly to a new acquaintance in the time it takes to ride an elevator a few floors. If that sounds a tad cornball, think of it like this: Knowing your "thesis" will help you define your goals, help you present yourself to others in an interesting, honest, and authentic way, and will help you move past the “this is where I work and this is what I do” kind of small talk that has people looking over your shoulder for an escape route. Crafting your thesis forces you to think about what matters most to you and how to communicate that to others. It will help you build a solid foundation for meaningful relationships that evolve into the community that will help foster both personal and professional growth.
Like I said, less is more. What that means exactly is your network doesn’t need to be massive. Instead, it should be filled with the right people—those you admire and respect, who share your beliefs. For instance, when my partner and I first started Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), our shared mission was to create the kind of peer-to-peer resource community that we both wished we had had when we were first starting out. And so we both sought out people who we knew would find meaning in that mission, whether it was other entrepreneurs, people in government, or the media. The idea was not to connect with whoever was willing to connect with us, but to seek out a core group of influential and like-minded people who could serve as our inner circle, and who could, in turn, connect to other folks to form mutually-beneficial relationships with.
Maybe you’ve already been overly-enthusiastic and created a huge network that now seems to have taken control of your life. If so, it’s time to take back that control. Ask yourself who deserves your time and why. Equally important is to assess your habits and activities since where you spend your time impacts the quality of your network. Which of your activities adds value and is worth the investment of your time? Which ones could you cut out in order to spend more time on others that are more valuable?
Sharpen your communication skills
Your goal is to build deeper relationships with real context, and that requires knowing how to have conversations that go far beyond surface level small talk. Most people think in terms of black and white (cats or dogs? beer or wine? LA or New York?) but true connections are made in the gray zone—the subtle nuances that make us unique, the “whys” behind our opinions and preferences. That’s where things get interesting and memorable. It’s also where you learn the kind of information that doesn’t show up on a Facebook page or a LinkedIn profile.
Curiosity is the engine that informs, leads, and inspires conversation. If you are not naturally curious, you’d better cultivate that trait ASAP. Ask bucket loads of questions that go beyond “where do you work?” and “what do you do?” Ask good questions like “what you are working on that most excites you?” and listen closely to the answers. You’ll get the kind of depth and insight that leads to deep connection.
Be empathetic and generous
The answers to your questions give you more than just some interesting information you can tuck away until your next interaction. They provide you with clues as to how you can be helpful. That’s right: how you can be helpful, as opposed to how someone can be helpful to you. In my book Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter, I dub people who are able to exhibit all the traits above—you guessed it—"Superconnectors." They are habitually generous—they go out of their way to do favors and to be helpful without expecting anything in return. But that requires knowing how to listen and to perceive needs, desires, and fears that others may not be able or willing to express directly. Superconnectors don’t walk away from conversations thinking “what a great chat.” Rather, they’re thinking “how can I provide strategic value for you, even if you’re not asking me for anything right now.” You may never get anything in return from the people you help, but you’ll get something even more important: social capital as someone who’s willing to go the extra mile to be of service. That makes you valuable, and memorable. The expectation of return on investment is great for the stock market, but nothing is more toxic to relationship building.
Does this all sound a hell of a lot harder than networking? Of course it is. Real relationships that go beyond a “like” on Facebook or an endorsement on LinkedIn or a re-tweet on Twitter take time and effort. Years, maybe. But guess what? You don’t have a choice anymore. It’s no longer a matter of shouting above the noise to be heard by the masses, because that’s now impossible. You need to speak far more deliberately, to a select group of people who matter most to you, and to build a community that is mutually respectful, valuable, and sustainable.
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Scott Gerber is the CEO of The Community Company and coauthor of the book Superconnector: Stop Networking and Start Building Business Relationships That Matter. Follow him on Twitter.