Natural Networking

I’ve been asked many times about my “secret” to networking, and even as a self-described introvert (don’t laugh), I’m often baffled at the question. How do I meet so many amazing people?

“And your new connections are real ones!” my friend Dennis exclaimed. Well of course they are, that’s how we too got to be buds. Maybe it’s all in how you think about it. Generally, I don’t. Still, I meet fine folks and bond with worthy professionals all the time. And so can you.

In the olden days, there was golf, bars, and “schmoozing.” In modern times there is work, family and the internet. Little sleep. Lots of juggling. How are we to connect? We are too busy, fragmented in attention, and guarded against opportunists. Authenticity rules. Really, this is about making friends… naturally.

SHE HAD ME AT HELLO (but we didn’t say that)

Recently I went to an Oscar viewing party opened up by my film club to the public. I go annually, and know several faces, while expecting many industry insiders to keep to themselves. That is fine. Most of us have issues with someone pushing themselves upon us as strangers. If it happens, the method better be delicate and respectful (unlike the individual who shoved a script at me in a toilet stall during a film festival!).

I was standing at the end of the buffet line, as two women remarked about a local nominee, Sam Elliott. I concurred that the actor had been deserving for a long time. A few quips later, one asked, “You are in the industry too, aren’t you?” This is a reasonable question as some plus-ones may not be. “Yes, does it show?” I winked.

While dishing our grub, I learned one of the women was a double-decade set decorator, “though I do other things now too.” “Don’t we all,” I answered. These days, most everyone I know has multiple careers, multiple income streams, or multiple passions beyond their day job. This is the new normal. Reinvention and pursuit. But not of unwilling victims.

By the end of the event, without any willful glad-handing, I had met six new folks. (Seven if you count the man I crashed into in a crossing crowd, who smilingly asked to “at least get your name!”) There were basic pleasantries in sound bites, with only brief introductions exchanged. Far from formal.

I collected two business cards and three on-the-spot invitations for hot drinks, lunch and dinner. It was simple intent for more conversation than the event allowed. I took phone photos for one couple and posed with 3 others. This is how we play these days.

After everyone leaves… Then what?

Photo wallpaper by Lisa Robyn Deutsch

Coming home I sent replies to the invites, and heard back from all of them. The first one I saw again was Lisa Robyn Deutsch, AKA “Lisa Love.” Given the choice of a restaurant or her home studio, I chose the latter to see her work. Smart move, Lisa. Visual aids! Another hook.

Lisa was experienced in set decorating for celebrity music videos (e.g. Gwen Stefani, Cee-Lo, and Miley Cyrus) and studio films such as “The Wedding Singer” and “Barb Wire.” She has decorated interiors of the W hotel chain and private homes too. Impressive! Besides being an entertainment industry veteran, she is also a yoga teacher, leader of meditation retreats, a “spiritual” photographer, speaker, luxury realtor, and owner of “Soulful Design,” marketing wall art, rugs and bedding that feature positive affirmations. Talk about added skills! Brand themes are peace, simplicity, gratitude, and her signature essence, love.

“We have so much in common!” she said as I walked in. She must have looked up my digital footprint as homework too. Outside of the film community, we found other intersections of interest. Sure enough, we both make photographs designed for meaning as well as beauty, and offer image-based products. We shared overlapping demographics, as east-coast transplants and mothers of two children. This tete-a-tete was the tip of the iceberg of mutual knowledge, a beginning. Neither of us knew where it might lead or if it would develop at all.

“Why did you invite me?” I asked. “Because you followed up, and that’s rare,” she answered. Yeah, who needs flaky friends. Be a sign of quality, whether you ever work together or not.

Lisa has been doing public speaking and podcast interviews, with an eye toward a co-hosted radio show. She wants to find a “soulful singer” along the lines of Lenny Kravitz, to partner with in new media projects. She’s interested in trying stand-up comedy. She would love to get her photography into more galleries, and in greater commercial distribution. Did I mention she writes too?

Ambition runs in the family, as Lisa expressed pride in her teen son’s precocious entrepreneurship and her younger-teen daughter’s forays as a model/dancer. The time flew as we leapt from one plan to the next. When I left, Lisa generously gifted me with a lovely Buddha photo she shot in Bali, and various collateral including her slick black business card. The woman is busy, driven and prolific. I could relate!

I was amazed at our similarities as well as appreciative of Lisa’s unique talents. They say we like those who… like what we like. This is why your chances of real friends are better when you let things unfold organically and don’t force. Investigate and let go. Instinct leads us to good bets.

“Networking” activity TIMELINE

Event:

  • Buffet line quips, exchanged “what do you do/where do you live” queries, request for my card
  • Delivered my card to Lisa’s table; took a quick selfie (despite bad light) to help remember, since she didn’t have cards with her. (Note, mine was an old card, but bookmarked me well enough. No excuses: name, email or phone is a start!)
Angel Burns & Lisa Robyn Deutsch (photo credit: Angel Burns)

Next day:

  • Searched her name online, using Google and social media. Found on Facebook (the photo verification helps); messaged “nice to have met you.” (I didn’t want to wait for her to contact me. It might not happen, or would be too late for memory to serve.)
  • She messaged back, inviting me to tea at either a restaurant or her studio
Lisa Robyn Deutsch in her studio (photo credit: Angel Burns)

Next week visit:

  • 2-hours of show-and-tell: I brought tea bags; she brewed, while I perused her portfolio and samples. Discovered friends we both know, and shared current projects. Lots of laughter & high fives.
  • Lisa gifted me with a silvery art print and had me pick an inspirational quote card from a box. Hugging goodbye, we parted as pals!
Lisa Robyn Deutsch signing my personal dedication (photo credit: Angel Burns)
Lisa Robyn Deutsch signing my personal dedication (photo credit: Angel Burns)

How to get READY:

First, consider networking can happen whenever you leave your home.

I advise people to look and really see all you interact with, including gas station attendants, grocery store clerks, and package delivery drivers. Talk to everybody; open up a tad to those already speaking to you for any reason. Do let people know what you are working on and what you need. There are always surprises as folks moonlight or are invisibly connected to others who may be helpful. If a stranger can move along your quest one degree, well, why not? If he or she can’t, the mention makes for friendly repartee. You never know. Let yourself be open to input from less likely sources.

Most business networking happens at conventions, seminars and meetings. Work events. Trade shows are an excuse to print whole boxes of business cards. Networking meetups are held to facilitate familiarity among the less connected. Those are okay since newbies are often in the same bewildered boat and want to band together for stability. But traditional events may only find you the obvious choices in stilted settings. Sometimes the casual ones are easier situations to meet people.

Cross-pollinating the sources of friends, resources and ideas can bring in fresh air and insights. Stay open to conversations at outsiders’ business, social and special interest events. I’ve made fast friends from support staff like too, including cultivating mentorships.

Pick events that jive with your current interests and projects today, not just what is recommended for you. (For instance, I could easily choose from Photoshop World, National Association of Broadcasters convention, American Film Market, The American Film Institute film festival and on and on. But sometimes my fixation is technical, sometimes creative. Sometimes it isn’t business related at all.) Interests revolve and evolve. Best to go where your needs carry you, so you are really alive with the energy of curiosity. There’s nothing worse than feigning interest where there’s none. Don’t come from a place of “should.” Go where your focus is leading. You’re more likely to meet others that share it.

Really the only “preparation,” if any, is to remember to carry a few business cards in your wallet and keep your phone charged. It’s helpful if your card is up to date and has a photo of you on it, as some are more likely to keep one that does. A pen will substitute on a scrap of paper, program or napkin. Don’t over-engineer this. The rest is a relaxed state of seeing what happens.

Event CONDUCT:

I like to go to events alone. Some of you are flinching. Removing your safety blanket transforms your psyche into flypaper for human associates. You are more approachable and less responsible for including others into any discourse.

Just don’t bury your head in your phone to look busy. Look around, allow yourself to be unoccupied, and jump in when nearby chatter is appropriate to insert a remark. Be present. Even boredom is okay during the lulls. That could be an opportunity to save or be saved. Who else is dangling in time? Suddenly conversation may be welcome.

Offer to snap a photo. By the end of my dinner, I had met a registered drama therapist, retired philosopher, actor/screenwriter and one other woman who couldn’t get a word in edge-wise. We took selfies and exchanged names, all without anxiety. After all, photo posing requires looking at someone for a constant period of time, and self-consciousness is subdued by vanity. Everyone wants a good picture, and the effort is a good ice-breaker from that no-one-looks-in-the-elevator separation.

There was discussion about business cards, whether they were relevant any more. Those who had them shared, while others scribbled names and social media handles on any paper available. Whatever you do, do not start handing out cards like you’re dealing from a deck; that is obnoxious without the context of conversation. (Why should anyone care?) Do ask people how they like to connect, i.e. FB, LI, email or phone text, and note that.

Event CHATTER:

My event, as many business events, had round tables of food. Sitting next to strangers, it is normal to say “pass the (whatever),” ask a food-related question, or musingly comment during any presentation breaks.

If you’re going to spend a couple hours, it is nice to use names, right? Start while talking to help engrave the impression. You’ll practice pronunciation and habit, while the named person feels closer.

Don’t just talk about the job that put your listener at the event. Talk about peripheral subjects too. Small talk will fill gaps, like aspects of the location, extreme weather or event highlights. Current events often work, but especially real concerns that have affected you recently. A hot topic at our table were the conditions around the “Bohemian Rhapsody” nomination. Share what you know and what moves you. Then add how.

Emotional reactions can be funny or query consensus, even if it’s only to the decorations. Don’t be overly critical, though, lest you are speaking to the one responsible. Still, even feeble attempts can be a relief that you are without airs. Besides letting everyone know you haven’t had your head in the sand, these are personality clues as well.

Whoever you genuinely like is where to put your attention. Maybe you will become friends, maybe you will simply have cordial chatter that day. No loss. Only gain. No one should feel hijacked.

Sometimes folks want to continue getting to know you, so proposing a mutual coffee break is chance to get to know them better in minimal time. Another alternative I’ve heard about is a Skype or Facetime appointment, for a virtual but visual chat. Like a date, you will evolve or not. Everyone is busy. An hour or two will single you out as memorable, for trying.

Post-Event FINISHES:

Record new contacts. Often after events, I would make notes of names I met, if for nothing else than to greet them properly at next event. Awkwardness averted, rather than reinforcing the newness by not recalling names.

If someone gave a business card, I would send a LinkedIn invite so they can find my contact info as updated in the future. Photos are helpful reminders. Those who took phone photos or selfies, I add to my phone contacts by asking to text them the picture. A bonus is adding that photo in my phone contacts list, with their cell number. Right then it is done. And no big deal.

Those without cards or photos, I may ask to follow on social media if I can find their profile. It’s the start of holding hands from afar.

Whether emailing, texting or messaging on social media, I always include a personal note. This helps remind us both how we met and any pertinent detail we talked about. Meet people where they are, and after this follow-up, let go to allow for real ties to emerge. Or not. Remember, you are finding true friends, not a phone book’s list of names.

First CONVERSATIONS

This could be that first Starbucks after an event, or stopping by an office. Don’t overstay the welcome. You both don’t know what you are dealing with yet. It needs to be short with an easy exit for both.

Do some homework. Any articles or self-descriptions on social profiles may lead to other topics of interest to you. Not only does this save wasted time digging or taking stabs in the air, but it ensures you cover those outside interests while you are there. Just as in job interviews, research is a big advantage to going in blind. Nowadays, it shows you care. What are the broad circumstances of family, pets, major life events? This is added background for understanding and building bridges.

I always ask new acquaintances: what do you do, what do you want, what do you need. Get some specifics. That means, what is the current project, where would you ultimately like to go career-wise (or personally, if it comes up), and what is the very next missing step you need help with. This could be anything from the mundane to the Big Dream. You are trying to see a direction, goals, and obstacles. Wouldn’t it be nice to help? Because I meet so many people, often I have been able to put friends together for mutual benefit. “What’s my motivation” is usually interesting to hear about!

Share these objectives of your own. Maybe your new friend can offer advice, or refer you to someone else who can. Letting people know your own needs and desires, you can then absorb any stories that might supply a new perspective. Then again, maybe this happened for YOU to be helpful, rather than be helped. Be willing to give first. It is not always our turn.

Make room for serendipity

Networking events solely for that purpose make me uneasy. It’s like speed dating: “Quick, are you useful to me?” Ick. This kind of setup delivers only surface evaluations. Real relationships take time, openness and exploration. Trust the process.

Occasionally, encounters have a sense of fortunate fate. When we don’t control things, we feel blessed by surprises. Like with play, first lightness is required. Keep expectations in check.

When my fellow artist Lisa signed her gift print, she said she wanted to personalize it with extra feeling. I got a jolt when I saw the words, “Magical Love.” These were her and my brand essences, yet I never had said a word about it! Surely this was a sign of kindred spirits meant to meet. How could we have known it, over a scoop of salad? Call it kismet. Follow your gut when making friends.

(photo credit: Angel Burns)
Angel Burns & Lisa Robyn Deutsch, artists in arms

The adventure of not knowing

I hope this inspires you to relax about networking, while staying open to making friends as kids do. Without fuss. Start with those in proximity and see what happens. If nothing else, you will have more familiar faces to welcome you as you go. Meanwhile, if you can use what my new friend “Lisa Love” is offering, shout out to me or look for her online. It’s a small world that we can make spin more happily together. Connection is the joy of the journey.

Like many people, Lisa told me she took rainbows as a positive sign, ever since her late father promised that is how he would reassure her. As I finished writing this, I went by the window and gasped. A huge double rainbow over the view! One for each of us, twice the magic of leveraged resources. Well… of course… a new friend is good luck indeed.

double rainbow
The power of multiplication: network yourself! (photo credit: Angel Burns)
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