To the uninitiated, professional networking is an intimidating business. For veterans, however, it resembles something closer to hanging out with the purpose of getting to know others in your field for future employment, recruitment or collaboration opportunities.
Once you grow accustomed to how it all works – the dance of cursory introductions, the exchange of base stats (Are you working? Looking? Doing what?), the tangents into related anecdotes, the mutual feeling-out of each other’s humor and sensibilities – it all becomes an amusing practice. Almost like interactive people-watching.
Yet even for veteran networkers, there is a hard limit that caps the effectiveness of any networking attempt: the physical limitation of only being in one place at a time. Luckily, there are two ways of conceptualizing the act of networking that can help multiply your efforts. These are known as billboards and magnets.
Problems and Solutions
If the problem is that you can only be in one place at one time, then billboards and magnets are the ways to make the time you do spend work harder on your behalf, both passively in the case of billboards, and actively in the case of magnets.
While these ideas far predate modern technologies like social media and even the web, they are excellently suited for the digital tools available today.
You’re at a networking event. There are 60 other people in the room you’d like to talk to, but since the event ends in two hours, you’d need to spend no more than two minutes talking to each one to meet everybody. Two minutes isn’t nearly enough to make any kind of meaningful connection, so you can rule that out.
You could just throw a handful of business cards at everyone and call it a day, but the lack of any interaction with you means they’ll probably end up in the trash. If you truly wanted to reach everyone in the room with your message, theoretically you could wear a sign of some sort, like a rudimentary billboard, advertising your services for hire, current vacancies, etc, that people could read as they glimpsed you through the room without requiring two minutes of your time. This strategy would be less elegant, but it would maximize your presence in a way you couldn’t do unaided.
This is the basic idea of the billboard: to act as a stand-in for you when you can’t be there. Of course, you could go further than a simple sign and create a longer message that essentially simulates what a conversation with you would be like in order to give others an even better idea of your thought process, sensibilities, strengths and so forth. Something like… a blog.
(Note: This is one of the reasons why I started writing Dashjump back in 2012. Let the meta wash over you.)
Billboards can take other forms besides blogs. They can be podcasts, YouTube channels, newsletters, columns, etc. As long as they passively provide a way for people to learn about you, they serve the same purpose.
Above all, effective billboards do the networking for you when you aren’t there.
If billboards are the way to maximize your networking ability when you’re not there, magnets are the method of getting the most out of the in-person networking activities you choose to do.
Say you’ve just decided to switch career fields. Before committing to the plunge, you want to attend a few events to meet people in your desired field – but you have no idea where to start. A basic Google search for your location and the field may result in a few Meetup groups, and you start attending as many as you can to soak up information.
After a few months of these you come across another group that, while only seeming tangentially related to the field, oddly appeals to you. You attend, and maybe you meet an opportune contact, learn about yet another intriguing event, get introduced to a new skill that fascinates you – or perhaps none of these things happen.
Regardless, the fact that you were innately compelled to go to this event is what makes it a magnet.
Being in tune with your magnets – events that strongly compel you to attend for reasons known or unknown – is not only a great way to invite more serendipity into your life, but can literally start your career.
Take the case of playwright John Guare. Moving to New York City in the ’60s after a tour in the Air Force with dreams of working in the theater, Guare found himself wandering Greenwich Village looking for an apartment when the course of his life changed forever.
Guare writes of his experience in the Signature Theater’s Signature Stories magazine:
“I saw in the window of a storefront a hand-drawn poster with the words, “Caffe Cino presents The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson” scrawled on it.
Was there a magnet in that poster? I poked my head inside the long, dark narrow room which looked like an attic in hell: all sorts of shiny things and paintings on the wall, big posters of Callas and Jean Harlow, tables and chairs around a playing area. People in the back fixing lights. I could fit in here.
“Is this a theatre?” “Come back at 6.” I went back to my parents to collect my entire body of work written at the Yale School of Drama. At 6pm, a swarthy guy in a dashiki stood behind the bar polishing a big coffee machine. Puccini blared. He said sorry, but he was only doing plays by Aquarians. I said, “I am an Aquarian.” He looked at me sternly. “Prove it.” I took out my driver’s license.
“February 5th, 1938.” He smiled. “I’ve been waiting for you.” He unrolled astrological charts. “You open on this date and look – you get a week’s extension. Welcome to the Caffe Cino.”
–John Guare, the Signature Theater’s Signature Stories, Vol. 5, page 24
Caffe Cino went on to attract bohemian playwrights, artists and performers, resulting in the spread of downtown theater companies that failed to fit inside the prescribed notions of established theater. Whether it was the location, the space, the proprietor, or the specific air composition inside Caffe Cino, something about it acted as a magnet toward those sympathetic to its mission.
Networking is Energy
Once you figure out the ground rules, people are not that complicated. We naturally find ways to relate to others, we thrive on meaningful interaction, and we love the feeling of being accepted. By strategically placing where your energy goes – whether into the passive displays of billboards, or into surgically-precise engagement with magnet locations and events – you increase the odds of having that energy accepted and reciprocated.
More personally meaningful than hunting for jobs or scouting talent, conscientiously networking in this way not only increases your odds for making good business connections – it enhances your life in a remarkable way.