A Guide to Non-Toxic Networking – It’s hot. The car’s air-con is struggling to fight back the strong northerly wind. I’m late. I hate being late. I always feel useless when I’m late.
I hurry to find a park, march the couple of hundred metres fast enough to be covered in sweat. I wipe my brow with the sleeve of my shirt (God I’ve got style) and charge up the stairs. I look around the room. There’s a couple of hundred people dressed in suits, (in fucking summer. Anywhere else they’d be in g-strings it’s that hot) trying to look business-like.
I cast my eyes around, looking for the people I’m supposed to meet, but they are not here, so suddenly I’m the one who can feel like they’ve got their act together. A rare sensation for me I assure you.
I’m still standing waiting half a minute later when the first drinks go past. I smell the beers and champagne wafting past, calling me like sirens on the hill ‘We want you Geoffrey. It’s been days since we’ve seen you. We miss you. Come Geoffrey, come to us, all is forgiven…”
I let my hand stretch out. A will of its own. The waitress (why is it all waitresses at these supposedly PC semi-government functions are always slim, pretty private school girls under 21?) turns automatically and slides the tray towards my paw. I grab the closest glass of shampoo, nod a thanks to her, sip the sweet nectar, and off I drift to party land.
My friends arrive just as I’m taking my second sip, and another waitress comes past with another tray of drinks. They grab a glass as I introduce them to each other. We talk about getting there, about the subject the key speaker will be discussing, about what happened at work that morning. This is Melbourne, city, lunch-time, any day of the week, any one of hundreds of similar functions. Today’s a political party election launch speech. Tomorrow could be an annual general meeting, a conference function, a formal lunch for a media group, or even a client. (But I’d be paying, and therefore grumpier.) I often notice the same faces in the crowd, often hear the same loud laughter, observe the same atmospheric changes, the same social processes of mix and mingle, massaging of ego’s, pulling of strings.
You can actually time the vibe change at most functions. They start to relax about 10 minutes after the second drink, which is usually about 30 minutes after they arrive. They will talk more, become more animated, their shoulders are less tense, their body-language more confident.
You have to ask yourself, what are we here to do? Are we really here to find out what Ted Bailleu is going to do to the State if he gets voted in? Or are we here for an excuse to leave the office hum-drum behind, or to further the cause of whatever cause we have on our horizon at present? Push the barrow, oil the wheels, stimulate the engine of commerce, make a quid?
Most people are here to keep themselves in touch. Not to learn much as such, because they won’t be able to give you more than a sentence or two in a week as a summary, but instead they are here to meet other business people. To extend the hand of friendship and widen their circle of powerful friends. Few will admit that. It’s frankly crass to raise the subject of networking. But that’s what any half intelligent person does in Australia, as often as they can.
Sign of a civilized society
Regular social interaction is the very definition of a civilized society. If you want to get anywhere in Melbourne, London or Tokyo for that matter, you have to know people. You network to survive and prosper in Australian business. God knows how hard it is to get anything done if you have to ring total strangers all the time. But if you met Fred at that function in the Docklands five years ago, you can still get through to him on his private line and you can still ask him if anyone in his department knows how to…..
Given that you’re silly enough to think I might be right, let’s look at how it’s done, shall we?
Your enjoyment is paramount
There’s absolutely no point in spending time doing anything on this planet unless you enjoy it. People who claim they have to work at this job or that, and hate it, but do it anyway, are frankly kidding themselves and are gluttons for punishment. If you really want to get away from anything in OZ, you can just walk. That’s the beauty of living in a democracy. A free society. Something the clowns who are always trying to impose rules on us ought to give consideration to occasionally. The less you allow freedom of thought and action to prosper, the more you tie yourself up.
That being the case, if you’re going to do anything, set out to enjoy it. I enjoy these articles. I’d be a fool to write them if I didn’t enjoy it. Ask yourself, as you walk into any function, ‘what would make this fun for me?’ Not ’what can I achieve?’ Or ‘Who do I have to be nice to?’ But ‘What will I do for fun?’
Not enough of this goes on. In really civilized places like London, Paris or New York, everyone introduces everyone to each other. They don’t stand around in little huddles of familiar friends. You can tell the banality of the group by how little they intermingle. The higher you move up the power-sphere in Australia, the more open people are to meeting others, the more they introduce each other. Go to a function of company directors or politicians, leading sports people, they will welcome you with open arms. Go to a suburban BBQ of strugglers, they will do it way less.
Always think of something to say about the other person and push them forward to meet each other. Even if you don’t know them. ‘Have you met this guy in the red jumper? What’s your name? This is Sally, she likes anything in red…’
Never ask what they do to start
On that subject, people will usually tell you. You almost never have to ask. And the more interesting they are, the more time they will take before they tell you. Sometimes I can’t resist and ask first, but you don’t really need to. It’s often quite interesting to see just how long it takes them before they ask you or tell you what they do.
The soft insult works
In Australia it is an un-stated law that people you can trust will insult you and people you can’t trust will say nice little things and agree with you, to get your guard down. If you understand this very subtle difference, you will be able to poke fun and to make friends quickly. I can’t begin to define the difference, but I know I like people who give me a hard time, a bit of cheek, and I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t.
Is someone who makes others feel at home. That’s anything from not noticing them make a manners mistake, ie, the wrong fork, to not correcting their grammar, to not noticing their shoes are dirty or they are 20 minutes late, unless it’s a very old friend, where you can make a fuss of all of those things and get away with it under the guise of humour.
Go to the opening of an envelope
There’s never enough functions to go to. There’s never enough people to meet. It’s like being too rich or too famous, you can’t do too many parties, conferences, functions.
Dress for the occasion. Not to stand out if you’re a guy. To knock them sideways if you’re a girl. Simple huh? But always be practical. Heavy wool suits are stupid on hot days. Stiletto’s are not a good look on the teak decks of yachts. And remember what Chanel said. Before you go out, look in the mirror and take some piece of jewellery off.
Do you know the person? Do you trust them? Do you fancy them? As yourself these questions before you say yes.
Subjects to avoid
There are no subjects to avoid. In fact, it’s much more fun to discuss sex and alcohol with Muslims and or Born-again Christians, more fun to discuss real estate developments with Union bosses….
If you have been speaking for more than a few minutes, shut up. If you have asked too many questions, just listen. If you see their eyes wander from you, or glaze over, move on.
How to swap cards
‘Give us a card’ is a lot better than saying ‘Oh, I’d like to contact you sometime in the future’. Always have business cards so you can ask for theirs.
I believe in making up nick names because I’ve got the memory of a tin sieve and it’s more fun and easier to remember a nick-name especially if you’ve coined it yourself. It also makes for a great bond with a stranger – they will love you for it. Then again, if it’s really insulting, they may not.
Taking yourself too seriously
You don’t matter a damn on this planet. We are all just a virus giving this poor globe a cold. You will be gone and not remembered in a hundred years. If you change the globe significantly for the better, you may appear on page 154 in a history book being written by someone doing a PHD. Don’t be serious, the rest of the virus can’t stand it.
Making an effort
Life should not be effort. No one wants to network with people who make things seem hard. Clever yes, witty yes, pretty, yes, insightful, yes. Important? No. See earnestness.
To quote one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Wing Commander Max Kirkcaldie, who trained the Battle of Britain fighter pilots, and made an outstanding Gin and Tonic, earnestness is the blackest sin. Never be earnest. Never spend time with earnest people. If you need a definition, or want to debate the above point, kill yourself.
Have parties yourself
So few people do. 20 or 30 years ago there were a lot more parties on. (I blame the safety nazi’s drink driving rules.) You don’t have to spend much money. A big bowl of chips in the corner and a BYO invite on email is all it takes. You could invite them to the BBQ’s on the Yarra River or the roof of your office if you don’t like your boardroom. And a party is a great excuse to make contact with all sorts of people you haven’t seen for years or to get near that special someone your friend knows but won’t line you up with…
Who to mix and who to avoid
Grand parents and kiddies make for family functions, but they fuck up a decent night. Keep age-groups within cooee of each other – that’s within one generation only. As far as mixing people at a function goes, if you’re standing with a few people, and wondering if you should introduce someone else, do a quick mental calculation about suitability. Combining clients and competitors or suppliers can be dangerous. Very good however to mix people with opposing views, for the sake of entertainment. The key thing is to make people’s night/day memorable. (It’s simply not done to invite people who all know each other, or all agree on an issue, to functions like dinner parties. See Etiquette.)
Read Etiquette books
Lade Troubridge’s is good. Jilly Cooper’s ‘Class’ has some strong points. Esquire, a famous magazine from the US (1930-50’s) has a great book on the subject if you can get hold of a copy. It also has some 100 or so brilliant cocktail recipes, which do go some way to fixing almost any problem. The bottom line is always do things you would like other people to do for you. Give enough notice. Introduce. Send thank you notes or ring the next day, open doors, make light of difficult times etc.
Don’t preach like I am – it’s boring
Sorry about this, but the format of this article is always telling you what to do. I try not to do that in person.
Invite people to lunch
This is my favourite meal of the day. Why? It’s easy to organise. It’s business-like. It’s say 2 hours of conversation, which is enough to explore lots of possibilities but not long enough to over-do them. It can be cut short ‘Sorry, they’ve just rung me, the bank managers in reception and I completely forgot about her…’ It can be healthy. Salad or fish?
Don’t expect to get something out of everybody
People are not commodities and most of us don’t want to feel used. It really should be as good or better for them as it was for you. The real purpose of networking is not a sale the next day. It’s friends. It’s having a mate who’s a judge to call when the police raid or it’s someone who knows where to get $5 million for a poker game. People to have dinner with. People to go on bike rides with. Yes, some of it turns into business, but if you go out looking just for business, you will often come back empty handed. It shows.
Picking up – do’s and don’t’s
Be careful in this, the most important area of networking. Do get a contact point. (Where they work and what department, is often enough) Do ask for a card. Follow-up at your discretion. Keep it business-like until you kiss them. If you know they are married, don’t get your hopes up for a long termer. Better a quick, enjoyable squeeze than no squeeze at all. Getting locked in a hotel room with them for a few hours is often a good idea. Excellent if the spa is bubbling and they bring a friend. Conferences in foreign cities were invented keep bored business people interested in life. And the golden rule? Whatever happens on the plane or in the lift, stays on the plane or the lift….
Why not set people up? “This is Peter, he’s an HR manager for Xcom, and this is Sky, isn’t it? Sky’s looking for a few people for a project and, shit, Peter, she reckons she needs some help finding them….”
Most people go to functions to have fun and there’s nothing more exciting than meeting a person who you think for a moment might like to jump you in the stair well. And they may remember you in their wedding speech.
Wearing name tags
It looks stupid. It feels stupid. It is an American abomination. Yes, some dickhead may want to talk to you because you’re with a big company, but everybody hates them. Try swapping name tags with someone you like. It’s a great way to make the event more interesting. I find being Caroline Witherspoon, from Coca Cola or whomever, always more fun than being me.
Alcohol is your friend
My favourite father-in-law used to call alcohol the greatest of social lubricants.
Drinking to excess
Never do anything to excess. The intelligent definition of excess generally only involves killing you.
The devil’s in the details
It doesn’t matter what you remember about someone, the colour of their sox last time, their car is a hummer, their wife’s passion for sailors etc. Anything that gives you a connection is good. Use this to make conversation when you next see them. Twisting is very good – how’s your wife’s yacht business? Opens up a lot more conversational options…
Yes, put their name on your database. Yes, consider contacting them regularly.
First of all, you should decide to put them into one of two categories, immediately. Category one is friend. In this case, when you ring them up, you don’t mention your business unless they raise the subject. And you don’t push a sale on them unless it seems requested. You may use the business subject matter to open the conversation, but don’t get all earnest and leave it there. Explore their backgrounds, interests. If they make it about business only, it’s their decision. If, on the other hand they would be better as a client for whatever reason, adjust your game as appropriate. Most of the networking stuff (books/emails/lectures) talks about following up the next day with a note or a phone call. That’s relevant if there’s something urgent you need to act on, like you promised them tickets to the concert tonight, but generally you don’t need to panic. Just because you met someone in February, and it’s now September does not mean they won’t remember you, as long as you weren’t a complete drip.
As my follow-up, next month I’m writing about turning a good business idea into a business itself. If you want somewhere to park some money or somewhere to get some, let’s do lunch.