Whether you’re looking for new clients, job hunting, or seeking donor support for your organization – everyone will tell you that networking is key. But is it? In theory yes, but in practice [click to tweet] networking has lost a lot of it’s magic and has become formulaic:

  1. Go to a networking event
  2. Shake hands with random strangers
  3. Collect a few business cards
  4. A month later find those cards in a pile in the corner of your desk
  5. Carefully move them to a drawer
  6. Find business card pile several months later and have no idea what event you met them at or why you kept these cards
  7. Toss cards in recycling bin
  8. Head out to yet another networking event that evening

If this sounds familiar to you, than you need to stop wasting time networking and start to focus on relationship building. The difference is knowing your intention and purpose. Go into an event  thinking about what you can “get” and you’ll be spotted from a mile away and people will avoid you. Relationship building is not a one time transaction. [click to tweet]

What’s the point of networking?
Unless you’ve created a plan in advance, you have likely had this scenario: Go to an event, circle the room a few times, have a few conversations, and then leave thinking it was a waste of your time.  A planning moment is a really critical step that many ignore.

Without a plan you arrive at the event, but you are not present and focused. You go through the motions of small talk and give rote replies to tired questions. You narrowly define yourself by what is on your business card and miss the opportunity to share more of your full self. It all feels disingenuous and unfulfilling. Building relationships can be so much more than that!

Why this networking event?
It’s important to consider prior to the event why you’ve selected that event out all the other possibilities that week. That decision should be based on a sense of who you want to meet and the kinds of conversations you are hoping to have.

If you find the idea of mingling exhausting, you should be selective about where you spend your time. If you love meeting people it’s still a good idea to be selective or you’ll find yourself just collecting tons of business cards without any plan for building on those connections. Focus your energy on events that attract the people you’re most excited to meet. These people will in turn introduce you to new spaces that will expand your circle, building on existing relationships.

“Norm!” – the benefits of being a regular
Scattershot attendance at events hosted by lots of different groups with little attendee overlap will slow your efforts to build a strong network. The easiest way to build relationships is to keep showing up in the same spaces. Attend three events in a few weeks hosted by the same organization or within the same industry and people will get to know you and what you’re about. This will dramatically enhance their ability to introduce you to the kinds of people you thought of when you were considering your purpose. They’ll also like you more simply because you’re more familiar due to the mere exposure effect.

Offer before you ask
Before going to the event, get in the right mindset. Instead of thinking about what you need, get clear about what you can offer. Ask yourself the following:

  • What skills, experience or passion can I share?
  • My favorite life hack that has really helped me get motivated is…
  • My productivity has really increased when I started using…
  • I love listening to ________ podcast (or reading ________ blog) because…

Having a few of these in mind will help you keep the conversation flowing. You’ll also be seen as a great resource and someone worth getting to know a bit more.

“Can I go home now?” – the importance of setting goals
By this point you should have a really good sense of your purpose in going to events and you’ve found a few events that attract the kind of people you want to meet. Perhaps you’re nervous about actually going to the event or due to your shy and introverted nature dreading the idea of spending 2+ hours schmoozing. Whether that’s the case or you’re an outgoing extrovert totally ready to jump into this opportunity, you still need to set some goals:

If you’ve become a regular you’ll want to split your time at the event between meeting new people and reconnecting with those you've already met, because building relationships requires more than one chance meeting. Set a goal to meet 3 new people and reconnect with 3 others.

If you are used to buzzing around the room, goals may help you focus on having more meaningful conversations, rather than lots of small talk and air kisses. [click to tweet] If you are more familiar with being a wallflower than a social butterfly than your goals may be different – anything above zero conversations would be a great start. When you’ve reached your goal, you can go home – really, you do not have to stay to the end. (Cue cheer from introverts!)

Life Hack: Write follow-up emails beforehand
Now that you’ve got some clarity about your purpose – write a draft of the follow-up email you would send if you met the perfect connection. Write two or three versions based on the different types of people you hope to meet. This will help you refine your purpose or “elevator pitch” even further. It will also make it more likely that you’ll follow-up since you have a draft to start from. (This is one of my favorite life hacks, so I was thrilled when LifeHacker wrote about my tip.)

Take the next step
You’ve done all the research, figured out who was going to be there, and set goals. Hopefully taking these steps got you thinking about all the possibilities and positive outcomes that could result from attending. What if the morning of the event you wake up with that familiar feeling of dread? That’s an old script talking. You’ve got this! Read through your planning notes and then visualize your success. Picture yourself engaged in a really great conversation. Imagine how everyone will be smiling and happy to see you. Feeling prepared will make it easier for you to make eye contact, smile and be friendly to everyone you meet. Then just look for someone who returns your smile.

Opportunity awaits!
Go build great relationships and stop wasting time networking.

What tips do you have for motivating yourself to get out there and make great connections? Share them in the comments.

Robbie Samuels has been recognized as a networking expert by Inc. and Lifehacker, and profiled in “Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It” by Dorie Clark.  Check out “On the Schmooze” his new podcast.

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