Networking is a funny concept. And by “funny”, I mean absolutely fucking poisonous. It’s about trying to work a group of people, and their contacts, in order to get something from them. I hate that whole concept, and I’m big enough to admit that part of the reason I hate it is that I suck at it.
Entering a networking event, you can feel the eyes of every attendee fix on you for a few brief seconds, like a pack of hungry wolves. They come up and shake your hand with a poisonously false enthusiasm, and as soon as they work through a quick calculation and conclude that you’re not “important” their eyes start flickering around the room, looking for their next meal.
These people, these networkers, they want something from you. They want something and they’ll do anything to get it. They want something, and they don’t know what it is, but they’ll sure as hell find out if you can give it to them.
Would-be startup founders are the worst for this. They’ll come up to me at an event at Fishburners or Stone & Chalk (awesome startup spaces here in Sydney) and as soon as they find out I don’t work for Google, or Atlassian or Blackbird or whatever, they bail and latch onto someone else.
It’d be amusing if it wasn’t indicative of the way they’re going to treat everyone else they do business with.
It’s a nightmare, it’s completely false, and it feels unpleasantly familiar every time it happens. And it’s not just networking events, I go through this every morning when I triage my email. So many people will reach out, with an email that’s basically an attempt to get something for free, dressed up in something innocuous or friendly.
Email 1: Hey, love your work, thanks for writing it!
Me: Awesome to hear from you, I really appreciate it.
Email 2: …give me money. Invest in my startup. Coach me for free. Get me published on Business Insider. Etc. Etc. Etc.
So here’s my rule. As much as I love meeting people, online and offline, as much as I love connecting with new souls, I will only meet people who genuinely give a shit about what I do. I will only meet people who want to have a real conversation, get to know me, and let an organic relationship grow.
The planet is pretty small. We can measure how many people are on it. But I don’t want to waste a second on this great big blue rock on people who see me as a dollar sign, a gatekeeper or an opportunity.
Only people who genuinely care will chat to you
The people who just want something, and probably want it for free, they will not have a conversation. They will not chat. They will not care to hear your thoughts on anything that they can’t use. It’s easy to recognize these people, because they talk at you, not to you or with you.
They name drop, and they startup drop. The conversations breeze by remarkably quickly, because all they want to do is establish whether you’re worth something or not, assign a value to your entire life’s activities based on their needs, and rotate.
These are the kind of people who would’ve snorted cocaine off their Rolodex back in the 80’s, and they suck. If, like me, you genuinely love to talk to someone one on one, and find out what makes them tick, and discover the topics they’re passionate about, you will find yourself clawing at a plaster wall dressed up as red brick.
The people who really care about meeting and enjoying others, will be able to talk with you for hours. You can go from hey, how you doing, to discussing economics, Miley Cyrus and the right way to cook an Omelette within 10 minutes of shaking their hand.
Only people who genuinely care will help you anyway
The best thing about people who give a shit, is that they’re the most likely to do something incredibly kind. Because they care about you as a person, not just a lead, they’re the ones who will call you and invite you out for a drink because they want to hang out, not because they’ve changed their LinkedIn status to “looking for a new opportunity.”
There’s a guy I know who manages a video game store. We’re in pretty different worlds, but we’ve known each other for a while. Every now and then, he’ll get in touch and ask if I want to catch a movie, get a drink or have a bite to eat.
And without fail, I’ll say yeah, absolutely. When I recently bought a second hand video game online and found that the disc was broken, he took it and swapped it for credit on a game at his store, and price matched the lowest retail he could on the new disc. Just a real nice guy.
After years of knowing him, the only thing he’s ever asked from me is to write one blog post for his site, and I was happy to because over a long friendship, he’s never been anything but genuine and genuinely invested in me. People like that, I will always put up my hand to help.
Because they genuinely care.
And they’ll always put up their hands to help me.
Because they genuinely care.
Only people who genuinely care will ask you for realistic favors
This one is so true. The people who are trying to network with you always have a big ask up their sleeve. They’re the ones who ask me to invest in their business literally within 5 minutes of meeting me, who want me to start a company with them to utilize my audience, who want me to proof read their entire book for free.
The kind of favors that I would hesitate to give to people I know deeply well in person, they try and ask for right out of the gate. It’s so unrealistic, and it speaks to their wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am attitude. They want to get in, get an answer, and get out as fast as they can. Fuck that.
People who care are going to ask for realistic things. They’re the ones who get to know me, and we talk for a while, and when their work comes up organically, they might ask me to read a blog post they’ve written, or suggest a marketing activity they could try. It’s respectful, and it’s open and it’s honest.
I know some incredible networkers. They can walk into a room, spot one person they know, and leverage them to leave with 5 new leads and a bunch of promises. I respect their confidence and their ability to talk, but I don’t respect the way they treat other people.
I want to meet people who give a shit. They don’t have to be wildly successful, they don’t have to be able to help my career, they don’t have to have a background in marketing or business, I just want them to care about what I do, what I love, and what I’m passionate about.
I’m not interested in collecting email addresses, I’m interested in having awesome conversations and getting to know some cool people. I’m interested in the experiences and the knowledge that comes from interacting with the rest of the world in a real way, no slime and no grime and no sales tactics.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.