Fortunately, the world has largely caught on to the fact that the old way of networking is dead. No more elevator ambushes and “will you be my mentor” emails. Now networking aficionados tend to talk about building relationships–a strategy sensibly summed up as, “help first, ask for help later.”
But Scott Gerber, author of a recently published book on the subject, Superconnector, is still disappointed. “Networking started as real people, meeting,” Gerber reflected to me recently. “It got bastardized to quick short blurbs of garbage.” Now, even the “help first” model for networking has gotten twisted up, he believes: People know they’re supposed to offer assistance before asking for it, but they’re going about it all the wrong way.
It’s not that the underlying idea is wrong, Gerber explains–it’s actually dead-on. The problem is that many of us are unwittingly burdening others in the effort to be “helpful.” “People who are really good at connecting never ask, ‘What can I do for you?'” he says. “They are detectors of context.”
The difference here is crucial but sometimes easy to miss. Just as good design is about making people not have to think, and good writing (for practical purposes, anyhow) makes things easy on the reader, good networking makes things easy on the would-be connection.
As a journalist, it drives me crazy whenever I get interviewed by someone and their final question is, “What’s the question I should have asked you?” (It’s as though every amateur interviewer read this one on a blog somewhere!) This isn’t usually an effective question; it puts the interviewee in a position to do on-the-spot work that may not yield good in-the-moment information. As an interviewer, you should do enough homework to know what questions need to be asked.
The same is true in networking. Effective networkers come prepared to offer specific help to those they want to build relationships with. They never ask how they can lend a hand. Instead, they understand that immediately creating more work for somebody to do–especially the kinds of busy and influential people who are most worth networking with–by posing questions like this is a clumsy way to start off.
So yes, build a relationship on the basis of giving, not getting. But don’t go about it by asking how best to do that.
How do you actually gather the context Gerber says a good networker needs in order to be helpful without being annoying? Actually follow the people you’re trying to meet. Read their updates on social media. Learn about their organizations and their challenges. Figure out which causes they support. Figure out what people are important to them. (And be patient–all of this takes time. Most worthwhile things do.)
And then, when you’re finally ready, offer something that they don’t have to think twice about.