Networking has, in many circles, become a dirty word. What used to stand for a robust collection of talented individuals who could offer mutual value and respect now stands for overly diluted bottom shelf liquor in drab, taupe conference rooms with people trying desperately to be seen and heard.
As my opening sentences may have made apparent to you, I am not a fan.
I remember distinctly how many of my international classmates in business school were shocked at what we referred to as networking. “It is transactional,” they would say. “Everyone vies for attention in an attempt to pry a business card from the person he or she meets to send the inevitable follow up email.”
Thankfully, it does not have to be this bad. There are ways that you can take advantage of the ass-backward way that networking has evolved in the communities of higher industry and start ups in this country.
Let’s go back to first principles: why do we network in the first place?
Let’s break that down:
1.) You are building a relationship. That does not mean that you vaguely remember the person for three months while you are job hunting and then completely forget about them. Network with people that you would enjoy knowing and following for multiple years ahead. Not only will this filter connect you with better people, but it will maximize the chance that you are successful in cultivating a real relationship.
2.) The relationship is mutually valuable. That means that you provide value in both directions. If you are networking with someone because they have something to offer you, you had best have something to offer them in return. Do you? Have you thought about how you can be helpful to them before diving into the conversation? If the answer is no, you are in trouble.
3.) The value will likely arrive in the future. There are chance encounters when you meet the right person at the right time; these moments are beautiful and rare. Most networking, though, pays off down the road. If you can demonstrate that you are not only interesting at a cocktail party but intelligent and engaged in your space for several months, a new person in your network is much more likely to feel confident introducing you to someone else.
So, per the title of the article, what’s the secret?
Books are a fantastic tool in networking that we do not use as frequently as we should. In an increasingly busy world of information, there are an endless number of people who read articles and blog posts, but the number of people reading books has dropped.
This reality exists in spite of the fact that Bill Gates has been taking a Think Week for years to pore over books and literature to help expand his thinking. This reality exists in spite of the fact that multiple people have written about Elon Musk devouring an entire library of books during his childhood.
The first is obvious: dedicating oneself to reading an entire volume on a subject suggests a desire to know it on a more intimate level than what one can find browsing the internet. There are obvious exceptions to this rule, and I do not intend to detract from the excellent journalism that is available online. However, looking at the big picture, reading a book is likely to provide a complete view of a topic than an article online.
The second point is a bit less clear but no less potent. Reading a book is a much more conscious act than reading an online article. We all receive articles via text and e-mail from family, friends, and colleagues. You can easily bounce into and out of a few articles a day. If you are reading a book, you have to consciously seek the time and space to open the book and absorb the information.
I have not gotten to the best part, however!
If you are in a networking conversation, introducing an idea from a book gives you an opportunity to summarize the author’s major premise and what you enjoy about it.
So, you’ve now demonstrated three highly valuable skills by reading a book and introducing it in a conversation. Now, do you want to know the most powerful part about books?
People always talk about different ways to be remembered following a valuable conversation. This is where the dreaded follow up email comes from. Yes, there are ways you can craft that message to make it more personable and memorable. But it’s still an email. Email, by definition, is not memorable.
If, however, you have a delightful conversation with someone around a book that you read, and the person expresses interest in that book, SEND THEM THE DAMN BOOK. Ask them in the dialogue if they like to read, and if so, in what format.
In doing so, you acknowledge the person’s shared enthusiasm for a subject, and you give them a physical token by which you can be remembered. Every time they see that book, even if it only sits on the shelf, they will remember the kind person who sent it.
Give this a try at your next networking event. You will not be disappointed.