I have a friend who is very good at keeping me honest when I am acting like a jerk-bot. Years ago we went to some fancy shindig together where Very Important People mingled amongst us, and the next day she confronted me that we needed to talk.
Here's what she said, I will never forget: "I just felt like you were looking around the whole time to see who was at the party, and I don't know if you realize how rude that came across."
She was right. I didn't realize. I thought I was being far more sneaky.
I apologized. But I also explained: I was trying to find a lit agent, and I was told several good ones were at this party. Immediately, she got it.
My big mistake? Not telling her ahead of time: "Listen, my concentration is going to be elsewhere at this party because I'm trying to meet folks I wouldn't otherwise have access to, so if you want me to go it alone, I totally understand."
The truth of the matter is this: Networking is hard work. And it becomes a lot easier when you stop pretending it is some easy-breezy TED talk slumber party summer camp.
I always give this real talk to prepare folks as to why it can feel so gnarly at times when you are trying to work a party.
It's because the pretense is that you're there to have fun, but the reality is often quite different. It can be tiring. It can even feel life-force-depleting. And it is absolutely transactional. It is the opposite of authentic. Except what's worse, it is done with artificial authenticity — which to me, there's nothing grosser. I can handle fake. I pretty much live for authentic. But fakery positioned to appear like authenticity? Barf bag please and hand me the will to live again.
(By the way, because I do find transactional interaction after transactional interaction to be exhausting, I try to make sure I have plenty of connections before or after that are 100 percent real and nurturing: with family, friends, people who love me. It reinvigorates me and keeps me sane.)
You are perhaps screaming at me right now: "WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE FAKE WHEN YOU NETWORK? YOU MUST BE DOING IT WRONG!"
When it gets right down to it, most normal authentic human interactions do not have a time limit where your goal is to obtain some busy person's contact information in a two-minute window. You know, so that you have a far better chance of that person replying to you rather than being forced to send an e-mail that says, "Was at your party last night." (My go-to subject identifier by the way is "hi from the tall blonde chick from the party last night" which I send as we are talking, so if you get that, hi, we just met.)
My point is this: Networking, inherently, is kind of a jerk-bot move to begin with. You want something. You're trying to get it from someone else. You're trying to meet people who can help you. And that's okay.
Ambition is not a dirty word. So just apologize to your wing-friend ahead of time, and get psyched. Let's network!
1. Create a vCard (or electronic business card) for yourself. Have it on hand if someone wants your contact info, and, alternatively, be prepared to send a super-short "hi we're talking at this party" e-mail right then and there to "get the person in your phone."
What is a vCard?
It is an entry in your iPhone (it also works on Androids) that you can then send as an attachment to someone else. Put a picture of yourself and your phone numbers and your address if you like. Also include your work website and your title (even if it's Writer/Editor or Freelance Visual Artist or whatever) so that the person who you are sending your contact card to has to do as little work as possible. Just tell them, "Click and save," and voila, an entry is now in their phone — for you. The first person who showed me this magic was Amy Schumer back in 2007. I asked her for a comic's contact info, and shazam! There it was all neatly contained in a contact card sent by text message. Don't ever say comics aren't organized.
And yes, have a real paper card, too.
But the vCard is most important. You can make the old-fashioned cards at a variety of places. I've used VistaPrint and had a fine experience with them, but there are plenty of options out there.
Here's why I don't think paper cards are as important as they used to be: I can speak from experience that if someone gives me a business card who is trying to get something from me (a gig, advice, etc.), it very often dies a slow death in my purse until I eventually put it in my "business card file" in case the person turns out to be Tom Cruise down the line (editors are information hoarders). But I rarely do anything with these cards. What I do is follow up to e-mails people send me. Short, sweet, beautiful little e-mails.
Let me take a minute to differentiate between sending an e-mail and sending a vCard after talking to someone at a party.
I absolutely feel the vCard is essential, and I always look at someone who has one as being ahead of the game in that they can instantly make my life easier by transferring their contact info into my phone that I can quickly save. I'm not required to create a card with a photo or gather up all their phone numbers or do any work at all, really. It's these subtle moves that place in someone's mind: "I'm going to make your life easier. I'm going to anticipate. I am never going to be an entitled jackass who thinks the entire world exists to cater to me."
But I wouldn't necessarily opt for sending a vCard to a new person you meet at a party instantly. Maybe if you super bond with them, and it feels right — and you think that's what will make their life easier. You absolutely might, and I have, but it's more of an awesome move to share when you know the person really does want to get in touch with you versus you hoping to establish a professional relationship. Sending a vCard would be great if the person indicates right away they have an assignment for you. Or they say they want to set up a meeting — but make sure they have given an indicator that they want to do business with you, and you're not making an assumption that they do.
Look at the difference between these two scenarios:
Scenario One: A person at a party who wants to get into freelance writing comes up to me and says, "I want to get into writing. I think it'd be fun. Maybe I could send you some ideas?" And I say, "Sure. You can e-mail me at email@example.com." The person then responds, "Great, I'll shoot you my vCard." I get it, and think, Well, I have plenty of writers already. Why does this person assume I'm going to reach out? And if they don't then follow up later with a more professional e-mail? Forget it.
Scenario Two: A freelancer I have lost touch with, I run into at a party, and she says, "I have an idea that I want to write about. I just found out that my demure book club is really an international crime syndicate. Does that interest you?" I say, "Are you kidding me? That's nuts. Yes, please. I would be so grateful if you gave that story to me. I don't have your e-mail any longer. Can you shoot your info to me?" The freelancer gets my phone number on the spot and texts her vCard to me. I text her right back, and we're in business.
It's absolutely critical to have that vCard, but in the first scenario, if I were this aspiring writer, I would instead say, "Let me send you a quick e-mail so I have you in my phone, and I'll follow up tomorrow." And then as she stands right there, she types out, "Hi! Great meeting you — sincerely, the short brunette in the red dress." Or whatever. It's quick, it's easy, it's not entitled, and it feels appropriately deferential and grateful. (And trust me: I'm very often the one approaching interactions from the deferential and grateful end of the spectrum, so I speak from experience here.)
Another neat trick you can try: If you are a free agent, your signature file (both on your phone and on your computer) could contain all your contact info to elegantly ensure someone can get in touch with you at a moment's notice.
Always ask yourself: What can I do to make this person's life easier?
2. Know how to communicate your value immediately and in a few sentences.
I always strategize: What do I want to get out of an encounter? If it is truly just a fun party and not a networking party then who cares about doing this gnarly human strategy? But most people reading this are looking to hustle some new connections who can get them where they need to go.
So figure out what you have to offer people.
Most often if you perhaps don't have the resume yet, what you do have is time. You could offer your internship services. You could offer assistance on a project. You could offer to do promotion at your college for whatever project the person you're trying to show value to is marketing.
For instance, if someone has a book, tweet it or write a review, and then include that in your approach (either in person or by following up by e-mail) so that who you're connecting with knows that you've already put the effort into strategizing how you can help them.
That makes the person so much more likely to help you.
And don't beat yourself up if this whole "elevator speech" selling yourself doesn't come easily to you. It can be hard to do, and it can also change depending on the circumstances. Maybe you've not fully decided what you want to do yet so you're dabbling in a few different areas. That's great. Just reposition yourself and your offerings according to the situation. How you sell yourself to someone who runs a public radio show you'd love to get a segment on is going to be vastly different than how you sum up who you are to someone who you're hoping to get a bottle service girl job with because eventually you want to get into nightlife promotion.
3. If the person who you want to network with is at all friendly, it is absolutely okay and appropriate to ask within a fairly immediate window (but not right away), "Can I shoot you an e-mail right now so I can follow up later?" while you are talking.
Do this. It is a lot less scary than it seems. And if the person has some secret e-mail because they're a big deal in their industry, then read that energy and adjust your approach. You could say (as I have done many times with celebrities), "Who would be the best person on your team to follow up with by e-mail?" Then do it. But get that contact from them in the time when you are talking face to face with the person.
Being able to later say that you talked to them at a party in your follow-up does make a difference. It shows that you're not scared or intimidated to approach people and that you go after what you want. It also makes the person who you are reaching out to feel like, "You know what? I should get back to this person." Versus if you didn't meet them, there's just not the same level of guilt in blowing off a cold call or e-mail.
4. When you do send your e-mail as you're talking to the person you want to network with, please make it short. Please.
This is so important, I can't underscore it enough. I sometimes forget my own advice, and I get really excited and want to tell my whole life story to someone, but don't do that. Resist that urge. Show that you are quick, quick, quick, and you will not be a time-sucking vampire. Honestly, "great meeting you" pretty much does it most of the time, and then identify yourself. Done. Boom.
5. In your follow-up e-mail after the party, make that e-mail still short and to the point — and make it count.
First off, think ahead of time, what do you want from this person? A job? An internship? Advice? To date their daughter? Free tickets to a show they're producing?
I would say, first off, don't make the mistake of playing the short game. You meet someone hooked up, so, sure, they can probably hook you up. But it's a much smarter move, to shell out the $50 to get tickets to some show they're producing (if that's the thing you first realize someone can do for you) and instead "don't waste the favor." Say you meet a podcast host you like. You're really interested in interning at such a place but then you see the host is performing somewhere and you ask if you can be put on the list. Dude, why did you do that? Play the long game, always. Don't waste the person's time with little annoying requests. Set yourself up from the get-go as being the Make Someone's Life Easier Whisperer.
I am curious: What other advice do you have? It feels like a strange thing to spell out "how to work a party," I realize, but I certainly know that I knew none of this when I was younger. And quite honestly, knowing how to do this effectively has helped me get everything from agents to jobs to introductions that changed my life.
Spill your secrets. What works for you?
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.