Conversation vs. conversion — Do you hate networking?

“Everything good in life—a cool business, a great romance, a powerful social movement—begins with a conversation.”

That’s from Dan Pink’s book To Sell is Human. Notice what word does not appear in that quotation?

Sell

Conversation not conversionI used to hate networking with a passion. I always felt dirty, somehow, like I was trying to get something from people. That’s probably because I was. Every person I met had a neon sign hovering over them: “Prospect!”

I might still hate networking. It’s hard to know for sure, because I don’t do it anymore. Instead, I have conversations. And I no longer see “Prospects!” I see People.

So when I walk into a roomful of 900 businesswomen—as I did last week—I don’t get overwhelmed. I zero in on someone interesting and have a conversation.

A conversation, not a come-on

Usually, this works like a charm. Turns out People enjoy having a conversation, especially when they sense you’re not trying to sell them anything. Well, except for this one man at a tech conference last month…

He was wearing great glasses, so I said, “Hey, great glasses.”

What?” The way he jumped, you would think he’d just heard a ghost. Seriously. My friend Robyn was sitting right next to me—ask her.

I weighed my options: slink away in embarrassment or try a second time. I repeated my compliment

Clearly this flustered the poor man. His brain was not prepared to process compliments from a random female: Is she coming on to me? [Reader, I was not.] If she’s not coming on to me, why is she speaking? 

Talk to connect

That odd encounter aside, I still believe that talking to people remains the best way of connecting. Perhaps even better than writing

My conversations with People have not yet begun a great romance or a powerful social movement—Mr. Pink may have oversold that a little. But they have allowed me to connect with a range of interesting folks. Some of whom have found me interesting as well. Interesting enough to join my mailing list, where we can continue our conversation.


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Networking: A tale of two titans

My story about the revolutionary truth about networking begins:

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

Yes, I know that’s not the order Charles Dickens used. But I met my first Titan under circumstances so stressful that when I happened upon a news story about the event several years later, I actually had a bout of PTSD. In terms of my business life, it was definitely the worst of times.

Back then, I didn’t have time to worry about the Titan’s reputation or fame. I was just head-down at my desk, doing the best work I could in an impossible situation. Fortunately, that “best” impressed him.

If we’d met under any other circumstances—at a cocktail party or (shudder) a networking event—I might have been just another fangirl, searching frantically for something intelligent to say. But in these circumstances, he met my work first. And that said the intelligent things for me.

Buffett Photo

When I picked up the office phone the next morning, I heard:

“Hello, Elaine? This is Warren Buffett. Did you write this thing?”

I had. He liked it. Over the six months we worked together, “the worst of times” turned pretty darn good.

Networking like a fangirl

I met the second Titan in much more relaxed circumstances: A friend and I bought tickets for a Broadway show featuring an actor we both adore. [Let me pause for a moment to define “adore.” In my case, it means that when this man sings, I sometimes forget I play for the other team—until my friend reminds me. She’s on his team, and somehow believes that gives her “dibs.” Though the actor’s wife might disagree.]

A colleague who wanted to do my friend a favor asked if she’d like to meet the actor after the show. I guilted her into taking me along. I mean, what are friends for?

We waited at the restaurant next door to the theater. I took a deep breath as I watched him dart past the front window and slip inside. The best of times, indeed.

He greeted my friend first and then turned to me. I consider it one of the signal accomplishments of my life thusfar that when he took my hand and said my name, I didn’t faint on the spot.

Perhaps a better accomplishment would have been to actually talk to him. But every ounce of common sense flew out of my head the moment he turned his eyes on me. I sat at the table in a daze, unable to ask a single question. My friend carried the conversation, suddenly the most charming I’ve ever seen her.

Now, it’s not like I had nothing to say to the man: we even have a (different) friend in common! We could have had a lot to talk about. But I was star-struck and dumbstruck. Easily the worst two “strucks” you can combine.

I connected well with Mr. Buffett because our conversation began on solid ground: we were talking about work, at which we both excel. But with the Actor—well, I acted like a fangirl because I was a fangirl. I completely forgot about the many very interesting other facets of my personality.

The revolutionary truth about networking—and thank you, Dorie Clark, for reminding me of this—is that it’s nothing more than having conversations with people you want to talk to anyway. Whether they’re one of the richest men in America, a man with one of the richest voices on Broadway, or the John or Jane Doe sitting next to you at a dinner party, we’re all just people. With a vast range of interests. It’s just about finding a way to connect…and then connecting.


Discover how to communicate courageously (except perhaps when meeting your favorite actor) and use your story to connect with and move your listeners. Register for my free webinar “The Courage to Communicate”—Wednesday November 30th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.

Don’t network: Talk to people instead

I know I’m not the only person out there who hates to network.

So I stopped doing it.

I do not network. Ever. I’ll tell you what I do instead, but first let’s look a little at the word. It’s just a collection of vowels and consonants—how have we invested it with the power to make us afraid? And I am definitely including myself in that “us.”

“Networking” hadn’t been invented when I was growing up, so I entered the business world a networking virgin. Eventually all the cool kids started doing it, but I still felt gangly and awkward whenever I tried.

If you’d asked me the definition of “networking” back then, I would have said something like, “Talking to people because I want something from them.”

I should have looked it up. Dictionary.com defines “networking” as:

a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest

“Supportive…sharing…” Nothing scary there. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says:

the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically :  the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business

Okay, that “specifically” example makes me want to put on the brakes. Let’s try one more. Businessdictionary.com says “networking” is:

Creating a group of acquaintances and associates and keeping it active through regular communication for mutual benefit.

I think I have enough information now to boil this down to a concise definition, something I can not only live with but enjoy. So my younger self’s definition of “networking” has morphed into:
Talking to people because I want something from them.”

Talking to people. That’s it. Networking is talking to people. And unless you live a very sheltered life, “talking to people” is something you do pretty much every day.

Network with authenticity

Once I take the self-centered part out, the conversation immediately feels more authentic. And that is exactly what BusinessDictionary.com means by “regular communication for mutual benefit.”

So I talk to people. And in talking to them, I am not waiting eagerly for them to stop flapping their gums so I can unload my elevator pitch. I am—what’s the word? It’s not used very much these days—oh, right: Listening.

I want to know whatever they want to tell me: Their challenges and joys; what’s working for them and what isn’t; where they feel they’re growing; where they want to grow.

Yes, at some point they’re going to ask me about myself, and I need to be ready with an answer. But the point is that I’m not forcing my story on them—I’m responding to their request to tell it. And I don’t know about you, but that feels a whole lot better to me.

Many people call this part where you talk instead of listen the “elevator pitch.” Personally, I hate that phrase. And I’ll tell you why during the free webinar I’ve put together to help you write yours:

Stuck in the Elevator? Create a pitch you love sharing

Click here for details. Join us—and never “network” again.