Skip 99% of networking events. Maximize the 1% you attend...
I stopped going to most networking events right around the time our first child was born, nearly three years ago. I didn't have time for anything then—every day was a struggle to sleep, eat and function like a human—and as I decided what I would choose to repopulate my professional activities during the following months, I took a hard look at which activities made an impact. Most things I had time to do pre-baby no longer made the cut. Here’s my ranking of the impact of the things I used to do:
One-on-one coffee meetings
Small group lunches or drinks which include people who don’t know each other but should
One-on-one phone or Skype meetings
99. Networking events
I take some responsibility for this, of course. I hate trying to meet people in a large group setting, where it’s hard to have more than superficial conversations. I’d rather spend 30 minutes with one person over coffee than one minute with 30 people at an event. People go to networking events to pitch themselves or their companies; no one goes to a networking event wanting to be pitched. It’s rare to meet people at networking events who are thinking of the people they meet instead of themselves.
I also hate the feeling of walking into a room where everyone is talking to each other, mostly about nothing, and no amount of executing on the good advice of articles like “17 Tips to Survive Your Next Networking Event”  will make that experience enjoyable for me. It’s important to know your strengths and what works for you when it comes to how to interact and build relationships. I’m just far better in one-on-one and small groups, and I suspect a lot of people are this way.
I didn't give up going to events cold turkey, however. Some events are worth attending. So I thought, how can I make these big events more personal? How can I make them more like what works for me?
What I came up with—and what I’ll share here—is my adaptation of Keith Ferrazzi’s “Conference Commando” strategy from the classic (and newly re-released and updated), Never Eat Alone.
When I attend a networking event, this is what I do to make sure it matters :
Ensure the speaker is exceptional. Who’s exceptional? For me, this means that you know the speaker’s content will be compelling and relevant to something you want to learn about. He or she will not tell you things you already know. And, either his/her content isn't on YouTube or you’re sure his/her personality loses too much watching it online vs. seeing it live. You will eliminate 99% of events using this evaluation tool. Does this mean you may miss someone great that you've never heard of? Yes it does. This is a chance I’m willing to take.
Don’t go alone. Bring two other people for whom the speaker will also be exceptional. Why two? Because you can introduce the people you bring to each other in addition to catching up with you, helping each of them make a valuable connection to another person who is interested in the speaker’s content (and therefore, they already have something in common). Extra points if the people you bring haven’t heard of the speaker—you’re introducing them to good content and you’re the person responsible for sharing it with them.
Make the event your own. Organize a drink or bite for your small group, preferably immediately after the event. If you meet anyone you like at the event, invite them to come along too. You’ll have a chance to catch up informally outside the event setting, and it’s a great opportunity to see if there’s anything you can do together to build on what you learned at the event.
If you do these three things, you are guaranteed to:
strengthen at least two relationships in one night by giving something valuable to each of these people;
see an exceptional speaker;
learn a few things; and
These three steps help me make every networking event more like a coffee meeting or a small group lunch, and less like a… networking event. And if you pass out a few business cards too, great, but any interesting conversations you have as a result of that will be icing, not the cake.
[Josh Beser was named a “Top 10 30-Something” by the Association of Corporate Counsel in 2014. He is Assistant General Counsel at Lonza, a global leader in life sciences and specialty ingredients with over 10,000 employees worldwide and an advisor to several high-potential technology companies. Previously, Josh was a corporate associate at Bingham McCutchen LLP and Heller Ehrman LLP, representing emerging companies in the technology and life sciences industries. Connect with Josh on Twitter and LinkedIn and subscribe to his email list to learn to be a better entrepreneur in your career.]
1. I saw a tweet or article referencing the idea of pitching vs being pitched to at an event earlier this week and I cannot find the cite. I would love to link to it if anyone knows. My apologies to whomever came up with it first—it wasn’t me.
2. I think the post I link to here has a lot of good tips; nothing against the advice in it. I just know, after 10 years of attending these events as a professional, that I hate them unless I approach them differently. This post lays out the approach that works for me.
3. I’m excluding multi-day industry conferences from this because my evaluation criteria are different. For conferences—of which I’ll do no more than 1 or 2 per year—I care more about the likelihood that I will meet and spend time with interesting people whom I do not know and care less about the official speaking agenda (except to the extent it gets other interesting people to the event).
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