Networking for people who hate networking

One of the constant career tips you’ll hear at every level of business and marketing is to go out and “network”. As a former IT guy, I once thought that networking with Ethernet cables and routers was significantly more fun and entertaining than business networking, where you force yourself to go out and talk to people you don’t know and have no reason to talk to, other than “networking”.


However, that was the wrong way to approach it. A powerful networking trick I learned from one of my martial arts instructors made networking much more valuable AND fun. One night at the dojo, Jon F. Merz was mentioning that as an exercise, he tried to go through his entire high school reunion without giving away any details about his life, always redirecting the conversation back to the person he was talking to. This takes advantage of people’s natural inclinations to want to talk about themselves, and is a handy trick for people who want to gather information without giving away too much.

What a handy, powerful way to reframe networking. What if, instead of viewing it as an exercise in performance and narcissism, you viewed it as intelligence gathering, information gathering? Wouldn’t that change how you acted? Wouldn’t that change your goals, even the questions you asked? Instead of being forced to find a way to talk about yourself (which is difficult to do well), you now have a much simpler laundry list of questions you can start with.

  • So, what do you do for work?
  • What did you think of the keynote speaker’s talk?
  • What brought you to this event?
  • What do you make of (industry trend)?
  • Who do you work for? (if the badge isn’t visible and you don’t want to stare)

Once you get the conversation going with questions, it’s easy to keep the questions coming, keep the information flowing. Listen for keywords and terms that you legitimately want to know more about and have simple conversation prompters ready.

  • I’ve heard of (keyword) but don’t know much about it. Can you tell me a little more about that?
  • That’s cool, I’ve always wondered about (topic). Have you worked a lot with it?
  • Interesting. How did you deal with that?

Finally, have porcupines and words at the ready as well. Porcupines are a question type where you immediately hand back a question to something someone said, as though they had handed you a porcupine. So imagine someone saying, “Are you having trouble with content marketing?” The porcupine would be, “How about you?” Single question words are also powerful ways to get someone to talk more. When they mention a topic, simply repeat back just the topic and only the topic. For example, someone might say, “Oh, and we’ve been really struggling with keywords and SEO ranking lately” to which you’d say, “Keywords?” and the conversation will flow.

Turn your networking game into an information gathering game. Not only will it become much more comfortable for those of you who are introverted, but you’ll also make the people you’re talking to feel like the star of the show – and that will accomplish your networking goals far faster than talking about yourself.

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The marketing optimization trap

Chasing his tail

In marketing, we love to talk about optimization. Conversion rate optimization. Landing page optimization. Revenue optimization. Search engine optimization. Social marketing optimization. We dream of being able to squeeze every bit of performance out of our marketing machinery like a Formula 1 race car driver.

In our endless quest for optimization, we forget one vitally important thing, however:

You can endlessly optimize a bad system.

For example, we can endlessly delve into our analytics and optimize our practices for any given metric. You can optimize your Twitter habits to maximize the number of followers you have whose handles begin with the letter A. A ludicrous example, to be sure, but not so far from what many marketers already do.

In the quest for optimizing for that metric, we forget to question whether we should even be doing the practice at all. Worse, as Simon Sinek points out in his book Leaders Eat Last, our brains give us positive chemical reinforcement for every little optimization we deliver. We get a shot of dopamine in our neurons every time we squeeze out another percentage point of performance – but we fail to ask whether the performance even matters. We can chase our tails endlessly and feel like we’re getting somewhere.

The best thinkers, the best strategists in marketing don’t just leap into optimization without first understanding the strategic (un)importance of any given practice or method. Ask first whether you should do it at all before you ask how to do it better!

You can get very good at being very bad. Better to not do at all than to do the bad par excellence.

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5 personal branding tips for students

Sara Jane Fair from Rochester Institute of Technology’s Social Media class asked if I had any personal branding tips for college students:

Let’s start with some Hippocrates: first, do no harm. While he was speaking of medicine, this equally applies to branding. First, don’t do stupid things. Don’t post photos of yourself that you wouldn’t want on the front page of a newspaper, because when someone Googles you, that is the new front page. Don’t behave irresponsibly, because cameras are everywhere. Don’t load photos to the cloud that you’d prefer people not see, because clouds get hacked. If you should happen to do something stupid, don’t do it repeatedly – just ask the NFL how well that works for them.

Financial Aid Podcast 2007 Year in Review

Second, figure out your personal core values. My company, SHIFT Communications (we’re hiring), has 7: creative, connected, dedicated, honorable, smart, positive, and ballsy. My personal core values are smart, selective, curious, and driven. These are words that help you decide what to say no to in life. When I’m interviewing someone for a job, if they aren’t in alignment with both my company’s core values and my personal core values, they don’t get the job, even if they are technically “qualified” on paper. Conversely, I’ll give someone a shot if they evince those values, even if they’re slightly less qualified than another candidate.

Third, once you know your own personal core values, seek out people who are in alignment with them, because those are people you’ll genuinely enjoy interacting with. Like attracts like, which means that as you expand your reach, you’ll meet more people in organizations who are aligned with you. Hang out with people that you want to become as much as you can.

Fourth, make a place to call home. It’s no accident I’m putting this on my personal blog and not a social network. You own nothing in social media. Your Facebook account, your Twitter account, all of that isn’t yours and could be taken away. Build your own website. Make a digital place to call home, and put your best stuff there.

Fifth, learn to express your achievements in an impactful way. “Worked at X company doing Y” is unimpactful. It doesn’t in any way tell someone what you’re capable of. “Worked at X company writing sales copy that outperformed other sales copy by 23% (as measured by closing rate) in 4 months” tells a much different story. In the words of one of my former sales colleagues, the radio is always tuned to WIIFM: what’s in it for me. From the perspective of a potential hiring manager, what can you do for me? Making your words more impactful on resumes, LinkedIn profiles, blog posts, and social media updates is an important ongoing tactical task.

These are the basics, the building blocks of personal brand. Remember that a brand, as Ze Frank so artfully put it, is the emotional aftertaste of a series of experiences. When someone interacts with you, how do you want them to feel? As human beings, we make decisions with emotion and then later rationalize them with logic. By doing the above work, you’ll know better what emotions you want convey, and how to convey them a little better.

For some additional reading on personal brand, I wrote these a while back:

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