Uncovering an ability to network

Note to readers: this post is part of an occasional series about what it’s like to start a business.

When I met a friend for lunch, she mentioned a Ms. Magazine article from the 1970s about business networking. Back then, she and her friends pored over the descriptions of networking and found them a revelation. One technique recommended clipping articles from newspapers or magazines and mailing them (paper envelopes! stamps!) to acquaintances with a little note, Thought you might enjoy this. My friend’s story made me think about all the ways networking has changed. And how it hasn’t.

A coffee shop crowded with enthusiastic (and heavily caffeinated) networkers. Open City at the National Cathedral; Washington, DC.

The Ms. approach reminds me of the link-fests that are part of a solid network these days. Instead of laboring with scissors, we electronically cut-and-paste relevant URLs and launch them via our favorite social media platforms; these posts appear on a schedule, as often as every hour, even when we’re asleep. Just a few clicks, and we can call ourselves “digital curators,” as well as adept networkers.

Networking or information overwhelm?

Once upon a time, we’d welcome receipt of a missive addressed to us in familiar handwriting, arriving courtesy of the US Postal Service. We’d drop everything and run through the house, announcing “Look what came from [insert name of person by whom we were thrilled to be remembered].”

These days, various electronic notification systems exhaust us with heaps of new message announcements. Joy has been diminished by volume. We’re more likely to be heard muttering to ourselves on the bus, “Oh, please, not [insert name of person we’ve never met face-to-face] AGAIN.”

But, wait, we’re just as guilty of pushing our own propaganda.

Back in high school (long ago in the pre-digital era), I used to love to get correspondence in beautiful cursive from a classmate who lived a state away. At the end of one epic multi-pager, he asked, “Why does a letter take so long to write, but so little time to read?” Now we have the opposite problem.

Brevity is what we crave today. Whole websites devote themselves to being concise in speaking and writing. Clicking through email, we cringe when one drones on for more than five sentences. We wish the sender would get to the point already.

An advanced-stage introvert attempts to network

As I establish my just-under-a-year-old freelance writing business and look for clients, I want to get networking just right. It’s commonplace for contacts to have hundreds of impressive connections listed in their social media profiles. Their schedules are packed to capacity. Personal and professional responsibilities obliterate their attention. It’s easy to fall into the trap of passing through without introducing myself, postponing a meet-up, or making excuses not to reach out.

When I started my business, I was very much out of networking practice. On top of that, I lack aptitude for it. Easier to just throw up my hands and proclaim, “I’m from another planet!” and spend more time writing content for my business website. Of course, networking also influences marketing, the part about promoting and selling services, which happens to be a key component of any business.

Ten long months passed during which almost the entirety of my networking efforts involved little more than sending a few emails with a cryptic message like, Hi, I’m here, I can write something if you ever want me to.

Then came the turning point

One Tuesday morning I realized that if I didn’t get better at networking, it would mean the end of my business. After such a long journey transitioning from office worker to freelancer, that felt way too sad to allow.

For weeks, I’d been contemplating my meager networking list of six people who might need a writer to help with pain points. Within hours, I added six others. Then more names popped into my head. I started grouping them, contacting a few each day, and soon created a spreadsheet to keep track. Suddenly, opportunities to network were all over the place.

It’s been said the best marketing is the kind you’ll do. That’s how networking evolved for me. Figuring out how to communicate with people – including strangers – without being creepy or irritating isn’t easy. My preferred mode of communication is email, so I started by drafting a more compelling letter of introduction (since scrapped, rewritten, and continuing to be tweaked). Then a handful of emails led to meetings. In this gradual way, I got more comfortable with networking.

As I look for work, about 50 percent of my time goes to networking. I block the hours on my calendar, I find myself looking forward to it. I’m getting to know interesting individuals and other businesses, as well as letting them get familiar with me and my business. In our exchanges, we swap useful information, instead of me just delivering a sales pitch.

Best of all, my expanding network provides both skilled teachers and other business newbies for much-needed support. Finding these talented people has been incredibly rewarding. The give-and-take of networking, as my friend alluded, is indeed a timeless art.

As for my early email efforts, against amazing odds, a few of those clumsy messages actually got responses. Some days, I’m in awe of the power of a personal connection. Other days, when no one bothers to reply, it helps to remember that every professional feels frustrated on occasion.

Network to the rescue. Find your familiars, gather strength, and then keep on going.

What’s your favorite networking technique?