How to Hang Up the Phony Networking and Get Real

I bristle when someone says, "I'm networking!" These two words just hit me the wrong way. In fact, I've reached the clear conclusion that I'm not a fan of networking as a verb. I have no desire to go into a room full of strangers with the sole purpose of "networking." If you agree, give me an amen.

You may be thinking, "Wait a minute! Aren't you the communications pro, the one teaching people about presenting, attending events, and the one I meet for coffee?" I am! I am that person … and I feel this makes me a reasonable candidate to suggest that we finally throw, "I'm networking!" out the window.

For the record, I truly enjoy meeting people. I love laughing, and joking; hearing stories and telling stories. In short, I love the whole thing of making friends. What I don't like is walking into a social situation where people are more worried about collecting cards and "working the room," than actually meeting someone. I hear the same reaction from clients whom will freely admit they hate networking because of the pressure, the fakeness, and the hype.

I think what creates this feeling of dread with networking is the same culprit that creates our feeling of dread toward public speaking. Like public speaking, when we engage in the act of networking we feel pressure to become someone smarter, smoother, and bigger than we are. We feel tremendous pressure to impress, so we try too hard and overshoot. Often the very act of trying leaves us feeling a little fake and superficial.

Then, we look around and notice others doing exactly the same thing: quick conversations, eyes not making real eye contact but darting over people, overzealous handshakes and very little real interaction. We begin to feel disconnected, stressful and unreal.

Not that many years ago, large face-to-face networking events were the way to touch many people at one time. In fact, the widely taught strategy to effective networking was to move through the room with the goal being to replace all your business cards with the business cards of others.

Today, more than 400 million people are on Facebook alone, not to mention all the other forms of social media. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you want to reach many people at one time, social media is the medium – not face-to-face events. Social media, in all its forms, allow you to promote, promote, promote … your business, my business, any business or anything for that matter. The Internet allows us to have at our fingertips resources and information within seconds.

The good news:

This shift in social media turns networking on its ear. It freed us from the burden and the fear of attending events to "network," and places the focus on attending events to build friendships rather than to promote brands or make the pitch.

Even better news: The communication skills we use to make friends are the skills we take with us to events and conferences. It's sometimes hard to believe, and even harder to accept, but the vast majority of us has the necessary skills inside us already – the skill of making friends. So take some pressure off your next conference or social event and consider some of the following ideas:

Go to events to meet one person, not a crowd. Go prepared to smile and relax. If you're uncomfortable walking into a place by yourself, take a good friend – someone you really enjoy – as your "event buddy." Then go with the sole purpose that together you'll befriend someone who either looks interesting or looks like they could use a friend.

Attend events because you want to and because you're interested. Volunteer your time and help others because you feel moved. Be involved in activities that reflect your values, and you'll be automatically surrounded by people who share some common goals.

Don't feel any pressure to talk about your service or businesses when you first meet someone. Instead, concentrate on striking up something real. You'll know when to talk about your business because that person will ask; "What do you do?" Be gracefully short about your response, and then get back to the business of building relationships. When you become genuinely interested in others, people will sense this and will become more interested in you. Honestly, free yourself of the sales pitch because events are neither the time nor the place.

Focus your energy on talking about what others do and introducing people. This will get you out of the frantic "I need your business, so here's my elevator pitch," which feels so fake! I mean, think about it: How many people would say they didn't need more business? Exactly. We're all in the same boat so let's just chill and enjoy the journey, and friends make the journey worthwhile.

Building friendships is just plain good business. We all prefer to do business with people whom we know, like, and trust. When a client becomes a friend, both parties are motivated to promote and do business with one another. Through social media we have a free stage to promote one another, and that, my friend, is the power of the network in action. A network is the natural outcome of interconnected people and strongest when it's based on friendships. I say ditch the pitch and the networking – throw them right out the window – and go out there and be real and meet some other real people.

Onlee Bowden, communication strategist and public speaking coach, is owner of In Your Own Words: Public Speaking Training for Today's Leaders. 231.590.1499, onleebowden.com.

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