We all know the set-up. You enter a door and there's a desk with name tags on it. "Hi! My name is ________." I take a black marker and fill the word CHUCK on the blank name tag. I then peel it off and stick it to my sweater. And yes, it will fall off several times during the next two hours. A smiling young woman behind the desk says "hi!" and points me to the food table.
I walk over to a table filled with plastic cups, paper plates, cheese cubes stabbed with toothpicks, bottles of wine and beer, and some M&M cookies. I grab a cookie and a Sam Adams beer and look around. I see about 30 people in the room, clustered in circles of four or five. Most of these people are young writers and young editors. I am not quite the oldest person here, at 51, but perhaps the second oldest. I see a guy with gray hair in the back right corner wearing a blue suit and a red tie. He looks about 60.
I do what I always do at such events. Walk up to the edge of a circle of chatting people and lean my head into the conversation. A woman smiles, takes one step to the side, and lets me into the circle. I am recognized and smile at the others in the circle, introducing myself and shaking hands, as they do the same. This being an event for writers and editors, the conversation turns to clients people and how we approach the process of telling stories. People are engaged, energetically discussing the creative life and how to make emotional connections with readers. It's fun to talk with people engaged in the same daily activity as I am, with the same focus.
Creative people are often quite creatively dressed. Although I'm wearing black pants, sneakers and a black sweater with my name tag falling off, another woman in the circle has on fantastic white cowboy boots and what looks like a poodle skirt, not to mention what looks like a beehive hairdo from 1961. Now she has some presence -- now I'm no fashion expert, but it works. I have a fun 10 minute chat with her about writing from the heart and coworking instead of writing from home. She's insightful and obviously skilled at crafting stories.
A nearby editor (I know he's an editor because they have red name tags while the writers have blue ones) is wearing blue jeans and a "grunge shirt" that looks like something the late, great Kurt Cobain would have worn. Nice! I talk to him about where he grew up and what he likes about editing. He's funny and deeply engaged in his work.
These writers produce content for IBM, Mastercard, Red Bull, Samsung, Vitamix (no idea what that is, actually), and more. Since our areas of expertise and client bases don't overlap, nobody seems to be out here trying to poach your clients (or vice versa).
With editors, I ask about how they work with clients and develop their relationships. I even recommend a few people I know as potential writers for these editors. One of the main reasons I attend networking events is to help find connections for people in my personal network. I'm the kind of person who helps try to create opportunities for others. Why? Because this has always helped ME in the long-run. When you help someone and don't expect anything in return, you invariably get a return much higher than you'd ever expected.
Yes, it feels good to introduce two people who start working together, but when you do this, you also add to your network and increase your influence. You become a connector, a bridge. On the few occasions when I've recommended or helped someone in my network and they've asked me directly what they can do for me in return, I tell them to pay it forward -- to help or recommend someone else (not me). When you network with the aim of helping only YOU, nobody really likes you or wants to help you. As my author friend Bruce Turkel likes to say, and he even wrote a terrific book about the topic, "it's all about them, not you."
As a result of yesterday's networking, I met four new people and even introduced two of my new friends to two of my old friends. I introduce people whenever there's a match between what somebody wants to do (write for a technology client, for example) and what somebody needs (an editor who's looking for a technology writer). For me, networking is about making connections for others. And yes, indirectly, I make connections for myself too.
I didn't learn this style of networking on my own, but from people who recommended ME to friends in need, and did so without expectation of return. Author Dorie Clark is a great example. She recommended me four years ago to the biggest writing client I have right now. She barely knew me, but she created an opportunity for me by recommending me to this client. She also showed me that this is what great networkers do.
So I'm always seeking to pay it forward -- to do for others what Dorie did for me, and I ask the people I help to pay it forward too. This approach isn't just a great way to build a terrific personal network, it's a way to build a better world.
I was the last one to leave last night's networking event. I was talking to an editor who said it was just about time to go. I looked up and the room was empty. I grabbed my jacket, tore off my "Hello! I'm CHUCK" name tag and headed out into the cold Boston night, having made a few new connections and having helped a few friends make friends. That's what networking is all about!