Some people line up lunches and coffee dates because they’re in search of a job, venture funding, or clients for their company. But if that’s the reason you’re having a networking meeting, you – and your invitee – aren’t likely to get much satisfaction.
That doesn’t mean you should never initiate meetings if you have a specific, immediate goal in mind. But that shouldn’t be confused with “networking.” If you’re honest with your intentions upfront (“I have a new startup, I’m seeking angel funding and I think you’d be a great partner”), then the other person can make an informed decision about whether to connect. But networking – meeting with the goal of building a robust set of connections over time – is a different process with its own set of best practices.
Here’s how to do it successfully.
+ Research in order to find a commonality. Using LinkedIn, Twitter and other online search results, you can almost certainly find something you share that will serve as a conversation starter. A shared alma mater, hobby, or professional interest can quickly get the person to see you as a peer and someone “on their team.” Starting with a commonality, and then branching into some thoughtful prepared questions about them and their business, will ensure the discussion gets off to a good start.
+ Meet in person if possible. In a globalized world, geography often intervenes. A phone call is a good start (they’ll at least remember your name and know something about you), but it’s a much weaker form of connection than the alternatives. Wherever possible, find out when the person will next be in your city (or vice versa) and make a plan to connect.
+ Arrive with a hypothesis on how to help. Don’t make your colleague do the work. In advance of the meeting, formulate a hypothesis about how you can be helpful to them, and throughout the course of your conversation, test it with subtle questions. Then, at or near the end of the meeting, you can ask them explicitly whether your idea would actually be useful. For instance, if you’re meeting an entrepreneur, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re looking for new clients, so if you know someone who could use their product or services, they’d probably appreciate an introduction. Similarly, offers of publicity are likely to go over well (perhaps you know the program chair for the chamber of commerce or your professional association). Even small gestures such as sharing someone’s social media posts or commenting on their blog are thoughtful forms of giving that are likely to be noticed.
+ Don’t ask for favors – for a very long time. Hint: if you have to use the phrase “this is totally asking a big favor” with someone you hardly know, you shouldn’t be making the ask. Of course, there are exceptions to the “rule,” and if you’ve become fast friends with someone to the point where it’s clear you’re not using them, then ask away. But it’s far better to err on the side of waiting and establishing trust early on by helping them, rather than extracting a short-term payoff that damages the relationship.
(Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You“ and the forthcoming ”Stand Out.”)
© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate