Strategies & Tactics

Meet and Greet: How to Become a Renowned Networker

April 1, 2019

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When friends introduce me to newcomers at PRSA meetings, they frequently comment that I am a “good networker.” I majored in history in college, not networking, but I can trace my proclivity for networking to an event that occurred during my college years.

My fraternity would occasionally invite sorority members for social visits on Sunday afternoons. I noticed that one of my friends always volunteered to tend bar. I asked him why he always stationed himself behind a barrier that precluded any opportunity to mingle with our visitors.

He confessed that he was innately shy and could not stand to mix with strangers. I’d always considered myself shy, too. But I decided at that moment that I never wanted to hide behind a barrier — physical or mental — to avoid the discomfort of meeting new people.

I forced myself to be more outgoing, a decision that has paid off immeasurably for me. Networking is like playing golf: The more you do it, the better you get.

Overcoming fear

After graduating from college I had another memorable networking experience. I had been hired as a rookie reporter for a small newspaper in central Pennsylvania. My passion was covering politics, and my long-term goal was to report on public affairs at the state or federal level.

I knew I had to pay my dues locally before I would be considered for a higher-level job. Nonetheless, I set my sights on the state capital, because Harrisburg had two large-circulation newspapers, two wire services and any number of public-information offices staffed by former reporters.

I joined the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), believing that at least one person in the local chapter would hold the ticket to a better opportunity for me. I couldn’t wait to attend my first SPJ dinner meeting.

When I walked into the hotel’s meeting room I saw 50 complete strangers, mostly older reporters and editors with decades of experience covering government at its highest levels. I, on the other hand, had just started covering zoning meetings in townships whose populations had more cows than people. To put it mildly, I was mortified. I started looking around for the hotel version of my fraternity friend’s bar, to find a place to hide.

Driving home that night I realized I had two choices: spend the rest of my career writing about rezoning cow pastures, or learn to walk into a room of 50 strangers without having a meltdown.

Fortunately, that first SPJ meeting produced at least one minor achievement for me: I met the person on my left and the person on my right. That meant two down, 48 to go. The chapter held meetings 12 times a year; doing the math, I realized that if I met at least two new people at each meeting, I would know everyone after two years.

That little trick got me over the hump. And the contacts I made at SPJ meetings ultimately led to my appointment as executive director of Pennsylvania’s state press association.

What I learned was: Get involved in a professional association as soon as the ink dries on your business card. Attend every meeting and gravitate toward people you don’t know. Otherwise, the room will always be full of strangers for you.

Many communicators are familiar with Ned Lundquist, who is active on the national speaking circuit. Considered a guru on networking, he always emphasizes two points:

  • The first law of networking is that helping your colleagues is how you pay your dues as a member of the profession.
  • The second is what Lundquist calls “The Law of Unintended Positive Consequences.” It means that when you have a chance to do something good for somebody else, you should do it — with no questions asked, and without expecting anything in return.

When you do, he says, you become the one who benefits, often in ways you never could have foreseen. This has been my personal experience, 100 percent.

Remembering details

One of our fellow professionals, Hanna Porterfield, wrote a piece for the December 2018 issue of Strategies & Tactics in which she mentioned that she sends an email to everyone she meets at networking events, to reinforce those connections and encourage ongoing relationships.

I do the same thing, and also collect business cards assiduously. I also note on each card where I met the person and list any details that might facilitate future conversations. For example: Where did they go to school? Where did they work before taking their current position? Did they just get married or have a baby?

Remembering such details makes an extraordinary impression on people. I don’t mind taking the time to do it, because I enjoy getting to know people. I also like going beyond superficialities and learning what makes people tick, what they’re passionate about and what their long-term ambitions are.

In that way, I better fulfill the “golden rule of networking,” as articulated by Lundquist. I can help people without expecting anything from them in return. And I know the resulting karma will manifest itself in some fashion, almost always positive, that I never could have anticipated.

Raymond C. Jones

Raymond C. Jones has operated a freelance writing business, Media Ink Communications, since retiring in July 2017 from his role as executive managing editor of Carolinas HealthCare System (now Atrium Health) in Charlotte, N.C. He is a past board member of PRSA’s Charlotte Chapter, where he is best known for carrying a binder containing the business cards of everyone he has ever met at PRSA meetings. Reach him at raycharlesjones@yahoo.com.

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