Entrepreneurs and job seekers both live or die by the relationships they build—with new clients, contacts, recruits, investors, and partners. But as any successful relationship builder can tell you, timing isn’t always on your side: Your dream client may not have the budget for your services right now, or maybe a strong candidate for a senior position just had a baby and isn’t ready for a move to a new company yet.
In other words, not everyone you meet will be ready to act on an opportunity at the same time you are. Your job then becomes positioning yourself at the forefront of their long-term memories, so that when they are ready to act, you’re the first person they call. Here's how to do that.
The psychological process by which short-term memories become long-term memories is called "consolidation." Simplified a bit, it involves neurons in the brain organizing and reorganizing themselves in response to stimuli so that a pattern emerges, helping long-term memory develop over time. Now, you can’t control time, but with the right approach you do have the power to be in the right place at the right time in the consolidation process.
When I was 6 years old, my sister taught me the "Cabbage Patch Kids" theme song, and she’d make me sing it any time her friends were around. They found this really entertaining, which means that at each recital I was prodded into, they were highly engaged. I’m 32 years old, and not only do I still remember every word of this song, but my sister and her friends do, too—in vivid detail. By consistently engaging my audience over time, I earned a place in their long-term memories.
Most of us have a song from our childhoods that we remember—lullabies, sing-alongs, Disney soundtracks, etc. But the same idea applies to business and building relationships. If you can continue to engage that client who can’t afford your services yet, or that investor who’s in the middle of a heated acquisition, you can carve out your place in their memories. And when the time is right, you’ll be on their mind.
To do that, you've got to get comfortable helping others without the expectation of getting anything in return. Aside from being a generally valuable life practice, this is also good for business and your career. We tend not to trust people who only look out for themselves and scheme to get ahead. But people who are helpful and generous with their time build more solid relationships.
A couple of months ago, a friend of mine asked me to write a testimonial blurb for her book, and I took the time to write something thoughtful, no strings attached. This month, I met with Casey Ebro, a senior editor at McGraw-Hill, about my own book. It just so happened that my friend’s book was being published by McGraw-Hill, and the blurb I'd written for her came up in one of Casey’s interactions with her team.
Within the next week or so, my own project was up for review, so in a somewhat serendipitous way, my name came to mind at the perfect time—right when we were working out the terms of our relationship. Prior to that, I was probably just a flicker in their short-term memories. But afterward, I started to earn a place in their long-term memories, an outcome I couldn't have anticipated by writing an endorsement for my friend's book.
That’s exactly why everyone should be interested in the practice of evolving from short-term to long-term memory. When you’re cemented in someone’s mind in a positive way, it increases the likelihood that when an opportunity arises, it will come to you.
As a leader, you’ve likely spent a lot of time planning how to grow your business. But if you communicate with people in a way that signals sales and growth are all you’re thinking about, your relationships will suffer.
Take a step back and think about your habits when you communicate with others. Whether written or verbal, are you sharing an insight or idea or just focused on the sale? Here's a simple litmus test: Ask yourself if you’re thinking first about what's valuable to others and putting your needs second. If you’re not, pump the brakes on the sales pitch, and offer to educate them instead.
By positioning yourself as a trusted resource rather than a pushy salesperson, other people will associate you with what you’ve taught them and how you’ve helped them out—and that’s memorable.
If you can switch your mind-set like this (and do it consistently), you'll become more likely to transition into the long-term memories of the people who matter most to you and your business. And that means you'll be more likely to land a great opportunity when the time is right for them, too—not just for you.
John Hall is the cofounder and CEO of Influence & Co., a company that specializes in expertise extraction and knowledge management that is used to fuel marketing efforts. He is the author of the book Top of Mind, forthcoming from McGraw-Hill (April 2017).