Professional networking, if done effectively, can be life changing. The relationships created at in-person events have the potential to create an incredible amount of positive inertia that carries with you long after the conference is over.
Networking well is a necessary life skill for almost everyone, but particularly important for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs, unlike traditional 9-5ers, have non-linear approaches to wealth creation. As such, the ceiling of opportunity gained from a small conversation with another successful entrepreneur is orders of magnitude higher.
This has been particularly true in the last year of my life (the year after quitting my job): the friends and relationships I’ve developed from face to face meetings at conferences have vaulted my business forward leaps and bounds, in ways that relationships built during my career or solo-work never did.
Even in spite of this growth, I could’ve gotten much more out of the conferences I attended. Networking is not a skill that comes naturally, so having a game plan makes a huge difference in the experience I have when meeting other people for the first time.
In a recent podcast, Tim Ferriss outlines the steps he used to network like a pro at SxSW 2007, which ultimately led to the monumental success of The 4-Hour Workweek (the actual SxSW speech is on YouTube here).
Having a few of these “conference networking hacks” in my pocket for upcoming conferences will give me the confidence to interact with serious influencers and make long lasting relationships.
Some of the main points covered in the podcast:
- Biohacking to physically survive the conference.
- The top mistakes that most attendees make.
- How to pick the sessions and parties to make the most of the conference.
- How to interact with A-Listers, or not.
- How to set yourself apart, enjoy the ride and come away smiling.
I’ve listened to the podcast twice and distilled all his tips into the most concrete, actionable takeaways. Here they are:
How to mitigate the effects of alcohol
Hangovers are due to lowered vasopressin. Eat avocados for the potassium content. Combat this by staying hydrated. Drink 1 glass of water per 1 alcoholic beverage.
Only drink clean drinks. Tim gives the example of the NorCal Margarita (two shots of quality tequila, club soda to get drunk faster, and lime juice to mitigate the insulin spike).
Personal note: while this seems like a minor piece of advice, managing one’s booze can be a big key to social success. I prefer not drinking at all, but recognize the benefits that come from the social lubricant.
The key ideas here are:
1) don’t overdo it, and
2) minimize the effects of the hangover so the next day-networking is pleasant.
Tim’s 3 Rules for Successful Networking
1. Don’t dismiss people.
Everyone you interact with has the potential to get you a cover story in The New York Times. (because they do, and because it’s the right thing to do).
2. Don’t be a dick.
3. Don’t rush. (Play the long game.)
There are 100s of people who could change your life completely. Your job should be to have a deep human connection with just one of those people before you leave.
Prioritize interesting people over interesting sessions
Focus on the bios of the people speaking, rather than the title or content of their speech. Do this for the moderators as well.
How to approach moderators
Moderators are less “mobbed” than presenters. Humbly tell them what you’re working on, what you’re interested in, and ask if there’s anyone here that you should connect with.
When you approach the person who the moderator referred you to, stay objective: “hey I went up to SO-AND-SO, told them this, they said this. and I figured what the hell. maybe we’d hit it off. can I buy you a drink”
Your job isn’t to make a good impression, but rather not to make a bad one. Rather than sell-sell-sell, give someone a piece of paper with your contact information and a small statistic that sticks in their mind. It shows that you know how the game is played and respect their time.
How to enter group conversations
Don’t interrupt two people.
If it’s 3 or more people in a conversation, do the following:
- Walk up.
- Ask if you can eavesdrop.
- Tell them you’re new here.
- Offer to buy them a drink.
If someone says something you don’t understand, genuinely ask to learn more. Play the idiot; NPR hosts are great examples of this.
Eventually they will ask for your story; give them the shortest possible answer. Pause.
Leave with a no-strings-attached value add (in Tim’s case, a free copy of the 4HWW).
Don’t just approach your target influencers; go one level above
If you just go after the guy with the megaphone, you’re being a “traffic bigot.” Instead, find out who they read (one way to do this is ask moderators) and then take those people out for a drink.
Find the Pre-VIPs
Connect with the people on the come-up. They all know each other, and know the VIPs. This is easier to do and much more enjoyable.
How to approach A-Listers
Come from the frame of respecting their time and knowing that they are incredibly busy. Be polite.
Some questions to ask when approaching them:
“May I bother you for 30 seconds?”
“Is now an okay time for one question?”…”Who on your team could I email about [whatever you’re interested in]?”
Asking first shows that you have a moderate amount of social intelligence and that you respect them.
Asking about their team puts you in the “pro” category, because you realize they wouldn’t be comfortable sharing their personal email or phone.
How to pick people to talk to out of a crowd
Choose the most relaxed, un-rushed looking people in the room.
The small talk is the big talk
If you’re just going to pitch people, you can do that in a more effective way by staying at home and sending cold pitches, working on your cold email skill.
At conferences, you have the opportunity to dig deeper and talk about more meaningful things. That is how you become memorable, how you make the one deep human connection.
What to ask instead of “what do you do?”
Optimize for in-person meeting (avoid talking about the obvious work stuff).
Where are you from?
Are you from [there] originally?
How did you get from [where they’re actually from] to [where they live now]?
…run with the context.
What session are you most excited about?
What’s been your favorite session so far?
What are you most excited about these days?
How to escape conversations
“Hey, [name], are you gonna be here for the rest of [conference]? Do you a card by any chance? I’d love to stay in touch but right now I’d like to wander a round a bit, take a break… just grab a coffee.”
How to follow-up
Wait 2 weeks.
If you do it now or right after, you get lost in the noise.
Do it on a Wednesday or Friday afternoon their time.
Play the long game
Go for one deep human connection with one person.
How to choose good events and parties
Plan the sessions based on interest (in the speakers, moderators and topic). Let the parties pick you.
Go to at least one event per year, which is the most expensive event you can afford to go to.
That’s it for the networking bit. The rest of the podcast is Twitter Q&A.
In conclusion, remember:
Don’t dismiss people.
Don’t be a dick.
A few other operative phrases come to mind here, like: “Be normal. Be a good person. Treat others how you want to be treated.” Networking, then, becomes an extension of how you interact with others on a daily basis.
So with that in mind, and a few simple tricks up my sleeve, the next conference I go to will be a blast.