At a recent networking event, I encountered the rare and exotic BCC. You've seen these people before - Business Card Collectors. They dash madly around a crowded room, tightly clutching a stack of business cards with a crazed look in their eyes, dispensing with mere formalities like handshakes and "hellos" to knock out as many "thrust and snatch" moves as possible. Not a CrossFit reference, but the act of forcing their card on you while simultaneously, and with ninja-like skill, taking one of yours. They rarely make eye contact and never, EVER, bother with a formal introduction. Sometimes they even work in pairs, standing back to back as if to cover more ground in the short time they have to frantically collect cards. Any small talk is restricted to "here's my card can I have one of yours?" The desperation with which they conduct themselves makes me wonder if there's some unthinkable punishment awaiting the BCC who doesn't return to the office with a minimum number of cards.
Quality networking is not about collecting as many cards as possible and adding people to your newsletter/LinkedIn/Facebook/Twitter. It's about building relationships. Despite there being more than 50 people at this event, I left with three business cards. Your average BCC would scoff at my "low score," and believe I'd wasted my time. In fact, the opposite is true. I reconnected with people hadn't seen in a while and they introduced me to several people I hadn't met. Networking is not about the quantity of business cards you collect, it's about the quality of the relationships you build.
Let's talk about the very first networking event I attended, about 11 years ago. I got the time wrong and showed up an hour early. While sitting in the parking lot, the notion of walking into a room full of strangers and introducing myself to even one of them made me sweat. My panic continued to build until it dawned on me, about 30 minutes later, that the event was at a wine bar. "Go in and order a glass of wine you big ninny" I coached myself.
So I did. I sprinted to the bar, got a glass of liquid courage, then hesitantly walked into the event. The actual first person to arrive, Will Paccione, confidently introduced himself to me and asked what I did. "Oh, you should meet ___." Will promptly introduced me to four of his friends who introduced me to eight more. While I had no idea at that moment what quality networking was, I was learning it from Will. He was like a set of training wheels for me in the early days of building my practice.
I'd call him in advance of any event to make sure he was attending, then follow him around as he worked the room. One day, I attended an event without him, without having a nervous breakdown, and felt like a total badass. I'm so grateful Will is compulsively early everywhere he goes because he remains one of my dearest friends, while skillfully managing my firm's website. I got lucky. There was only one other person in the room when I arrived, and that felt manageable. Almost everyone has a tinge of panic when walking into one of these events, so first know you're not alone.
One of the best tips to overcome the freakout is probably the most counterintuitive - become an ambassador or greeter for the organization. Wait, I am anxious about meeting new people so you want me to OPT INTO a role where my JOB is to meet new people? Yes. Sweating yet? Hear me out. Introducing yourself is an incredibly vulnerable moment and exposes you to rejection, which comes in many forms. Someone who isn't listening to you, who's looking around the room for someone else to talk to, or looking at their damn Apple watch notifications can make you feel unimportant. It's far easier to introduce yourself as serving a role for someone else. "Hi, I'm Gina and I'm an ambassador for the [organization]. Who would you like to meet?" What's great about this role is that you have a defined purpose, you can stand at the registration table without feeling like a weirdo, introduce yourself to everyone walking in (easing their anxiety in the process, by the way), and you can ask people how you can help.
That's the key to any networking, whether you're introducing yourself to someone or introducing people to one another - find a way to provide value. It's not about what they can do for you; it's about what you can do to help them. Who do they want to meet? What is keeping them up at night? How can you be a resource? Valuable relationships are built by and among people who want to help one another.
If you sheepishly recognized yourself in my description of the BCC, do yourself a favor. Approach your next networking event differently. Don't simply collect as many cards as possible and immediately add everyone to your mailing list. Set out to have more than a ten-second conversation with, at most, three people you haven't previously met. Instead of bombarding them with information about your business, ask them what kinds of clients they seek and who they'd like to meet. If their business complements yours in any way, ask to buy them coffee or lunch to delve a little deeper.
True quality networking takes time. Don't attend an event, give your 30-second spiel, and expect to get eight new clients. Take your time getting to know people, learning about their businesses, and the relationships will grow naturally.