Last month I riled up a few folks by claiming, rightly so, that the elevator pitch was a terrible way to network. The lack of hateful backlash encourages me to make another networking claim, but first let’s talk about why I am focusing on networking lately. The reason is simple, people are getting worse, not better, at dealing with the face-to-face part of life. Generations of kids are growing up using their thumbs as the sole instrument of communication. When my family was at a restaurant recently, I looked around and saw half the tables not speaking to each other during dinner. A trio of teenaged girls, a couple on a date, an entire family; all on their phones texting, gaming, snap chatting, taking pictures of their meal—essentially, doing anything except acknowledging that there were other human beings present. (Seriously, can Pokemon Go just go now?)
The result of all this focus on the device in the hand? A month ago I was conducting a networking workshop with an audience ranging from seasoned executives to graduates just entering the work force. One young graduate said, “I hate to admit this, but I have never been taught how to give a proper handshake.” I admired her courage for admitting this in front of the group, but I really wanted to find her parents and ask them what they thought would happen when she eventually left home. Would she somehow magically absorb business etiquette? Or perhaps this skill is another in the long list that is relegated to “they should learn this in school.” (Schools already have enough to do raising our kids for us, let’s not add teaching business acumen to their plate.)
A simple handshake might not seem like a big deal, unless you have been on the receiving end of a bad one. I don’t know which is worse, shaking someone’s hand that feels like you are holding a dead fish, or having your phalanges crushed by a guy who is trying to prove he can bench press you and everyone else in the room. So we discussed how each culture’s handshake reflects their particular views on personal space. The wider the space around each individual, the less physical contact is possible (resulting in the fingers only handshake in some European countries). Cultures that have closer personal space boundaries will naturally have handshakes that involve both hands; one hand shaking while the other grasps your arm. Or even a quick hug. The standard American handshake involves crook-of-thumb to crook-of-thumb, two quick shakes, and release. Holding on to the other person’s hand any longer and you risk becoming that guy.
All this might seem too obvious to warrant the space I just took up describing it, but if your business depends on personal contact, it might be a good idea to forward a quick reminder to your staff, and make it a practice to critique this essential part of business etiquette before letting employees go forth and represent your company. But I said I was going to make another nasty criticism of networking, so I should. My advice is, never give your business card to anyone unless they ask for it. Now you are probably thinking, “Great. I’m supposed to just hope that when the prospect needs me someday, he or she will find me on the internet?” No, but the two important words in that statement are need and someday.
The crux of my advice is carried in the qualifier unless they ask for it. We have all been on the receiving end of someone who says, “Let me give you my business card.” We didn’t want his card, which is why we didn’t ask for it. The person giving us his card doesn’t suddenly make us want it. We accept the card out of politeness, knowing we have a recycling bin at the office. The goal of networking is not to get your card into as many hands as possible, hoping that one prospect will contact you. The goal is to establish a need for what you do; right now, not someday. If you give me your card without first establishing an urgent, immediate need, your gesture is seen as lazy. In a sense, you want me to do the work of connecting the dots between your business and mine.
If you give your business card to someone without first establishing a need on their part, they have no interest in staying connected with you. It is the same as connecting on social media networking sites. I receive several requests each week to connect with someone on LinkedIn, Facebook, or the like; and it is instantly apparent as to their motive behind the request. The relationship either involves me helping them, them helping me, or both helping each other. If the relationship is one-sided, I am offended at the request. Savvy professionals are only interested in mutually beneficial relationships. And if you say, “I think there are things we can do to benefit each other,” without really knowing how you can benefit me, you aren’t fooling anyone. That approach results in even greater distrust than if you had just come clean with, “Help. I need business!”
So, if you can’t shove your card into someone’s hand without them asking for it, how do you get them to ask for it? Simple; you focus on the needs of the other person instead of your own. At the last networking function I attended I gave myself a rule; I wouldn’t talk about myself or my business at all. (Those who know me know what a difficult task that is.) Instead, I would only ask about the other person; what challenges he or she was facing, what obstacles they had, and what they were hoping to achieve in the near future. Then I would offer ideas of my own or offer to connect them with someone who could help. “I know someone who might be able to help, let me put you in touch with her.” I positioned myself as such a valuable source of information, everyone wanted my card, and I never had to sell them on my business. My focus on other people’s needs did the selling for me. If you focus on the needs of others, your business, and the card that goes with it, become a valuable commodity. You have to make them want it.
There. In the span of two months I have faced, head-on, two of the most common myths of networking; the elevator pitch and the business card hand-off. What madness will next month hold?
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.