By Liz Ryan
If you're horrified by face-to-face networking events, you're certainly not alone - you're probably not even in the minority. After a decade of ferocious networking activity, plenty of people are coming out of the I-hate-networking closet to admit that chitchatting with strangers is about as appealing to them as walking over broken glass.
It doesn't have to be that way, of course.
When it comes to face-to-face networking events, the event host sets the tone and can have a huge influence on the tenor of the gathering.
If the host believes in schmoozy, rapid-fire elevator-speech networking, that's the kind of event he or she will throw.
If the host shares my philosophy that the best networking happens when a few, in-depth networking conversations have time to blossom, the event will reflect that bias.
That's why it makes sense to shop networking events before joining an association, Chamber, or other group.
I went to a networking event not long ago where the standard practice was to go around the table sharing rapid-fire (egg-timer-driven) introductions and sales pitches. I literally couldn't do it - I hid out in the Ladies room until the exercise was over. I don't think I'm physically capable of sitting with strangers and exhorting them to buy what I sell, but plenty of people evidently are. These events are not my cup of tea, and it's a good thing I hadn't taken the organizer's challenge to sign up (credit card or check accepted) as a new member of the club before that networking exercise was introduced. I would never have forgiven myself.
Networking doesn't have to be phony and cloying. Even at a false, back-slappy or air-kissy event, you can set the tone for your own conversations.
You can avoid me-first networkers who peer over your shoulder at the other attendees the entire time they're ostensibly talking to you. You can excuse yourself from a conversation like that by saying "Oh, I can see you're engaged" and walking away before Mr. or Ms. Looking for Something Better has a chance to react.
If someone begins to spit his audio business card in your face, you can smile and say "How lovely" in mid-spit and drift away before the elevator pitch hits the ground floor.
You don't have to be anybody's aural punching bag. There may be somebody, or more than one, at that event who's just as turned off by schmoozy networking as you are.
It may take awhile to find that person, as you make your way through the throng of “Shall we set up a sales call at your office tomorrow?” Sallies and Johns. Apart from the strengthening benefit of withstanding these verbal slings and arrows (in the sense of “That which doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”) you’ll also learn via these schmooze attacks which networkers to avoid in the future. If you’re lucky, you’ll eventually find yourself chatting with a person who’s refreshingly interested in you as much as in him- or herself.
The non-phony networker wants to know more about you than what you do in your business, and wants you to know more about her or him than the contents of a business card, as well. This networker is curious about what you did before the job you held, and what you like about what you do, and how the industry works. You may learn that this person plays the cello in the local symphony or that her son is currently studying endangered frogs in Peru. You’ll be pleased to hear about the frogs after fending off verbal blows from Stan and Judy and Mitchell, the me-first let’s-make-a-deal networkers you’ve been avoiding all evening.
The funny part is that after having sixteen or twenty brief conversations, one or two will stick in your mind as you drive home or fall half asleep on the train. Those one or two conversations had a spark to them – informed not by the fabulousness of the IT consulting services or promotional items somebody was trying to sell you, but by the character of the person you were talking with.
Smart networkers eventually figure out – and plenty never do – that networking about people is far more fun, more interesting and more fruitful than networking about products and services. The good news is that we can pick which type of networking we’re willing to engage in, and say no to phony networkers with our conscience clear.
After all, if a person doesn’t want to know you before he starts to sell you, you don’t need to know him, either. Your life will be much happier in the company of people who value you for yourself, whether you ever buy their wares or not.
Liz Ryan is Job-Hunt's Networking Contributor. Liz is a former Fortune 500 VP and 25-year veteran of corporate human resources departments. In addition, Liz is the author of Happy About Online Networking and an internationally recognized expert on careers and the 21st century workplace. Find Liz on LinkedIn.