“The most meaningful way to differentiate your company from your competitors, the best way to put distance between you and the crowd is to do an outstanding job with information. How you gather, manage and use information will determine whether you win or lose.”
Bill Gates (Co-founder and current chairman; Microsoft)
“The richest people in the world look for and build networks, everyone else looks for work.”
Robert Kiyosaki (Author; Rich Dad Poor Dad)
“Differentiate or die.”
Jack Trout (Owner; Trout & Partners consulting)
Successful networking is a combination of creating deep connections and differentiating yourself from these connections.
Connection is the only way to bring ideas, actions, and people together. Without connection, everything would stay the same. But connection comes with a price. The more you connect, the more you dilute your identity. The only way to keep yourself from getting lost in the crowd is by holding up a very distinctive flag. This flag, or brand, is a symbol of who you are and what you’re about. The key is creating a flag that is both recognizable and memorable. The best way to do this is by combining familiar reference points in unfamiliar ways. First, you have create a network of deep connections. Next, you have to differentiate yourself from these connections. Otherwise, you and your mission will get buried in your surroundings. A strong sense of who you are, backed by a unique, yet relatable message, will help you connect without getting lost in the crowd.
Create Deep Connections
“I would rather have 1,000 friends than 1,000 dollars.” This is what a friend of mine used to say to me over and over again in college. What a bunch of crap, I thought. Give me the money. I can do everything on my own. I don’t have time to sit around, nurture relationships, and talk about my feelings. I have goals to achieve. Connection is a crutch – that was my slogan. As a result, I went through most of college and graduate school focusing entirely on myself and my work. This approach moved me forward, for a while. But then I started getting stuck. Every few months, I would end up chasing my tail or hitting a dead end. I had trouble figuring out what to do next and it seemed like I was always the last to know about new opportunities. It’s hard to look ahead with your nose is glued to the grindstone. Eventually, I realized that connecting with other people is just as important to my progress (and my health) as my work ethic.
Soft skills nurture hard skills. A study published by the Academy of Management Journal concluded that successful managers spend 70% more time networking than their less successful counterparts. Other studies have shown that networking in business and entrepreneurship circles is positively associated with salary growth, number of promotions, perceived career success, and job satisfaction. Understand that connections crush qualifications. Your experience, job title, resume, and skill sets are nothing compared to someone else’s strong connections. Almost half of all job hires at top tier companies are referrals. Connecting also extends your lifespan. A study published in the journal PLoS Medicine found that having social connections improved your odds of surviving anything by 50%. The authors of the study described the impact of having very few social connections as comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
One connection can change your life forever. Have you ever met someone for the first time at a social event and, after 5 seconds, noticed your eyes drifting over his or her shoulders looking for someone more important to talk to? Stop it. Understand that searching for the biggest name in the room is not networking. Most people make the mistake of thinking that connecting stops at getting a name card or a friend request. They rack up loose associations at the expense of engaging with anyone in particular. The problem is that these people value the quantity of their connections (or the notoriety of their connections) over the quality of their connections. Don’t skim your network. Instead, dig deeply into individual relationships. The dork with the glasses and the gum in her hair that keeps bothering you at the conference might be 6 months away from launching the next Angie’s List. In two years, the annoying guy who responds to every single one of your Twitter updates might publish a book that influences your entire client base. The point is that every person you connect with is a human being, and human beings are capable of anything. The most important person in your network is the person whose attention you have right now. Don’t obsess over saying “hello” to the biggest name in the room (or online) when you could be cutting a deal or creating something new with the nobody right in front of you.
The 3 Types Of People At Every Conference
In the last year, I’ve attended over 30 networking events (this is far less than many people). Some of them were large conferences with 10-20,000 people, and some were small, invitation-only events with 50-100 people. Regardless of the size of the event, the same types of people always show up. The first type (the gunners) are those who show up to collect as many name cards as possible while hunting down the biggest names in the room. These people bide their time smiling and nodding at nobodies while constantly keeping track of where the important people are standing in their peripheral vision. When gunners get in front of decision-makers, they name drop, talk about themselves, and ask for favors right away. The second type (the wallflowers) are those who are either too afraid to talk to anyone or have nothing interesting to say so they sit on the sidelines watching other people connect. If a wallflower happens to get in front of a decision-maker, he will stare awkwardly, ignore body language, and ramble on inaudibly about his interests. The third type (the connectors) are those who focus on creating 2-3 deep connections with other people at the event. They stay present with each person and focus on giving and adding value to everyone around them. When a connector gets in front of a decision-maker, she listens, asks engaging questions, and is able to describe herself and her mission in 5 seconds or less. I’ve spent time being each of these types of people and can tell you from experience that the best way to connect is by being a connector.
Differentiate Yourself In 5 Seconds Or Less
No one cares what school you went to. Have you ever met a group of people for the first time at a social event and after 5 seconds watched their eyes drift over your shoulder looking for someone more important to talk to? It’s your fault. You lost their interest. When you first meet someone, especially a decision-maker at a networking event, you have a very short amount of time to get their attention. If you open a conversation with where you went to school or who you know, you’re done. Eyes glazed. Attention lost. Game over. A better strategy is to ask an engaging question. Get interested. Give people a chance to talk about themselves and their mission. Give them your attention. The key word is give. Flip your perspective. You’re not at the event to get something from them. You’re there to give something to them. Likewise, you’re not there to just sell yourself. You’re there to let other people sell themselves to you. Treat everyone as your equal. Don’t act better-than and don’t act like a fanboy. And, after listening, have something to say. I’ve seen people wait all day to get in front of CEOs, book publishers, start-up giants, and other decision-makers, only to embarrass themselves when it’s their turn to talk, usually by stuttering an incoherent paragraph about their childhood, schooling, past successes, favorite color, and every big idea they’ve ever had. Of course, I’ve never done this myself.
One minute of connecting equals 55 seconds of listening and 5 seconds of talking. But those last 5 seconds are crucial. This is your time to describe yourself and your project in a way that people will remember. 5 seconds is all you have to show people that you’re not just another resume, another businessman in a blue suit, or another entrepreneur in a graphic T-shirt. What good is it to meet the Founder & CEO of the next-big-thing if he won’t remember your name or your idea 2 minutes later? The best way to differentiate yourself from your network (in a 5-second time frame) is by developing a personalized elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a short statement used to define yourself, your profession, your product, service, or idea and its value proposition. A short trip on an elevator with someone is all the time you have to describe your idea in a way that gets the other person’s attention. In fact, nowadays, you only have time to make an escalator pitch – a pitch that lasts from the time it takes someone to cross your path going down an escalator while you’re going up the opposite side. The leading way to do this is by comparing your brand to two other well-known reference points. The key is connecting these points in a unique and interesting way.
Differentiate yourself by connecting usual things in unusual ways. When I first started building Cheeky Scientist, I wasn’t quite sure how to describe it to other people. I would say something about my experiences in grad school, helping people, writing, consulting, blah, blah, blah, boring. Now, I tell people Cheeky Scientist is Tony Robbins for nerds. Most people in the personal development field know who Tony Robbins is and almost everyone has an idea of what a nerd is. I’ve also described the project as Personal Development for Intelligent People. In both cases, I am connecting two concepts together in a way that helps differentiate who I am and what my project is about.
Christopher Johnson, the author of Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, calls this kind of differentiation a “high-concept pitch”. Johnson writes that a high-concept most often involves connecting existing reference points, such as another person, company, product, service, lifestyle, object, or idea, in a way that differentiates it. A great example of this is the original pitch for the 1979 movie, Alien. The producers pitched Alien as “Jaws in space.” They took Jaws, the world’s most successful summer blockbuster movie (and the first well-known reference point), and connected it to space (a second well-known reference point). In three words, the producers were able to tap into everything their decision-makers knew about the movie Jaws and everything their decision-makers knew about space, all while differentiating their movie from other all other movies. A high-concept pitch is a very effective way to stand out without distancing yourself from your connections. Learning to define yourself and your purpose in life in 5 seconds or less will help you both build your network and grow your brand.