You’re not the only person who hates weird cocktail party conversations.
"It’s true that networking often gets a bad reputation," says Porter Gale, the former vice president of marketing at Virgin America, and author of Your Network is Your Net Worth. "My advice is to shift your mind-set and focus on developing authentic values-based relationships rather than just collecting transactional interactions."
After all, you don’t need to know everyone. You just need to know a few people who’ll go to bat for you. "Try setting a goal of meaningful conversations with one or two people rather than connecting with an entire room full of folks," says Gale.
Here are five ways to make that happen.
1. Throw a dinner party
It sounds like a pain. But you can make it easier. A college thesis done by a student in Switzerland found that it took test subjects a mere 5-10 minutes to schedule a 4-6 person dinner party and 31-35 minutes to schedule a 10-15 person dinner party with Doodle (the online scheduling tool), vs. 20-25 minutes and 90-120 minutes, respectively, with email and phone calls. Myke Näf, founder and CEO of Doodle, notes that "People who wouldn’t throw a dinner party otherwise don’t magically start being much more social thanks to tools such as Doodle." But, "People tell us it’s more fun to organize events."
Hire a caterer to make the food and to clean up afterwards, and you won’t have to do anything but get to know your guests better.
If your primary purpose is to do good, you can volunteer in any way you’d like. But if you’re also trying to expand your network, look for gigs that bring you into contact with people repeatedly. Julie Erickson has been an elementary school PTA president and is currently a middle school PTA membership chair (they increased membership 62.4% last year, she reports). "Having the leadership role requires communication with others to ask them to help out, join, etc.," she says. "I also learned if someone says no to ask if they know someone who may be interested in helping." A more low-key way? Work the registration desk at an industry conference. Everyone has to check in and pick up their name tag at some point—and you’ll be there to meet the people you want to meet.
3. Grab a desk in a co-working space
You’re unlikely to meet new people working at home. A co-working space keeps the vibe casual, but brings you under the same roof as other free agents. "Meetups, events, co-working spaces, and online communities are the new power pockets, or places where connections, conversations, and relationship-building efforts are in high gear," says Gale. "The key is to analyze the potential gains and judge them according to your purpose." If you’re looking to meet graphic designers, join a co-working space that’s teeming with them.
4. Arrange a networking playdate
A fraught undertaking, to be sure, but if you’ve got kids who are the same age as those of a professional contact, you could suggest bringing the kids along when you get together. I recently spent an evening—kids included—with the owner of a website I’ve written for. I brought the kids along when I met a blogger who’d written about me on a recent family trip to Seattle. My agent and I hashed out the idea of what became my book, 168 Hours, at a playground. The list goes on.
5. Form your own group
Judith Rosenthal, an Ameriprise financial advisor, is part of a "mastermind" group with three other women. "Keeping it small means we have more time to hear from each other," she says. They’re all in different lines of work, but they present their business challenges on a monthly phone call and strategize together. "I have gotten some of the best referrals from the other women in the group," she says, as well as "best practices and solutions I can use at work and at home."
[Image: Flickr user Susan Sermoneta]