My now-podfaded podcast was titled Diary of a Shameless Self-Promoter. The reason I chose that title was because back in 1998 or so, I had started my own consulting businesses as a spokesperson and presentation consultant. And I was (a) a little shy about promoting myself and my business at networking events and (b) turned off by smooth and sleazy networkers with a thin veneer of social politeness covering a thick layer of self-servicing goals.
People, not prospects
I was convinced that networking could be more than business card distribution, honing the perfect elevator pitch and seeing everyone as a prospect. After all, networking doesn't have to be something shameful: pretending to listen, pretending to be nice but in actuality only listening for entries to promote your own products and services. Successful "networking" is in fact just the process of meeting people, having real conversations, and getting to know people, even those that might never be a prospect for your business.
Keep in mind that my first networking experiences were long before the days of social networking: no Facebook, no Twitter, nothing to blur the lines between the personal and professional. Sure, you may have lunch with someone from your networking club, but the goal was often to get a targeted prospect or another lead.
Don't be That Guy. Give first.
Did you ever "smell the Amway coming off that guy?" Some networkers give off that vibe: they only ask about you so they can eventually sell you something. They treat people like prospects and cease interactions when the people in question don't pass the prospect qualification process. Euw. That was never how I did networking, and quickly stopped attending groups or events with that focus.
It's been a long time since I ran across someone with that People Are Prospects vibe, and I had an extremely unpleasant experience with one last week. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and took the meeting, much to my regret. Forty-five minutes into the meeting, I was in the midst of some sales pitch that was most likely an MLM program, but the guy still hadn't told me what his business, passion or project was! When I asked him to tell me simply how I could help him, he slammed shut his book and refused to speak any further, saying I "wasn't ready to hear this."
Hear what? More mysterious sales pitch leading nowhere? The guy ended the meeting abruptly, having obviously decided I was of no use to him and therefore not worth speaking to any further. Yuck! What a waste of what could have been a pleasant conversation and the beginning of a good relationship.
Have fun and help out
My attitude toward networking is simple. It doesn't have to be self-serving and shameful. You don't have to be That Guy. Networking can be fun and a natural extension of your natural social inclinations. After all, "networking" is really just talking with interesting people. When "networking," ask yourself three questions in every social interaction:
1) Is he/she interesting?
2) Do I know anyone that might be fun for him/her to meet?
3) Is there any way I can help him/her along with anything?
In a social setting, the answers might be "send her the recipe for my raspberry-chocolate coffee cake" or "introduce her to Bill for a date." In a business social setting, the answers might be exactly the same! Or they might be "tell him about HootSuite" or "introduce him to Rod Brooks." That is, it's less about trying to forward a specific business goal or gathering leads than about listening and being a generous, helpful social person. Absolutely nothing shameful about that! (For more information on this, read this wonderful book by Bob Burg, The Go-Giver.)
Social networking is social
So if you fear networking, you're probably smelling too much Amway in the folks you're meeting. (One friend called these guys the "Have I got a deal for you!" folks.) Being obviously targeted as someone's sales lead makes me uncomfortable. It makes everyone uncomfortable. No one likes to be sold to.
Sure, sometimes I want to buy something, but no one likes being befriended only due to one's affiliations and market prospects. Networking should really just be meeting and getting to know interesting people.
It may sound counterintuitive, but I often don't ask about business at networking events. My favorite question is, "What is the last good book you read?" I'll take about the Avengers movie, the latest Twitter kerfuffle or what I learned this week on This American Life. If the business comes later, fine (it often does, oddly enough, without any pushing or prodding). If not, you have a cool person in your life. Even better.