Darrah Brustein is a Forbes writer and founder of Network Under 40, a series of networking events for professionals in Atlanta, Nashville, and Baltimore. She’s also the creator of the Life by Design, Not By Default Virtual Summit, which in its first year brought together 45 experts like Deepak Chopra and Adam Grant and over 10,000 participants.

When I ask event planners, “What does the term ‘networking’ mean to you?”, I tend to get a variety of answers. Many of them boil down to something that is taker-oriented, self-serving, and oddly dirty.

As an event planner myself for a group of over 30,000 people, it’s my hypothesis that this overwhelmingly accepted definition of ‘networking’ as selfish is wrong. Instead, networking is about connection and growing together by sharing ideas and resources.

Here’s why the current way event planners use networking isn’t working — and why if you do the opposite, you’ll be poised for greater success.

They inadvertently create transactional environments

Networking boils down to a relationship between two people. Compare it to dating: Do you go in for the kiss when you meet someone? Do you propose after the first date? In most cases, the answer is ‘no.’ 

Then why do so many assume that it’s okay to jump from “hello” to what they can get out of someone while networking? It leaves the other person feeling used and like they’re not respected. 

Flip interactions from transactional to relational. Take your time and finesse it a bit. 

Focus on distance versus sprints

Relationships are long-term. By looking to extract immediate value before a real relationship has been formed, you overlook the basics. 

People want to help people they know, like, and trust. And that takes time to nurture. So think long-term and take your time.

Find ways to add value on the spot

People want to help those who help them. There’s a psychological “rule of reciprocation” whereby one feels compelled to give back to those who give to them. While it’s not why we offer value to others before we take, it’s one more compelling reason to do so.

One way I add value is to ask questions to my guests that enable me to quickly learn something about them. I then offer to connect them with someone else at the event with whom they have something in common and/or can help one another. I scale myself by having a team of ambassadors (1 per 10 guests) who does the same.

Don’t wait until it’s too late

If you go out looking to build relationships when you need something, you’ve started too late. You should give twice as much value as you take from a relationship. 

For that reason, it’s tough to start on the right foot if you’re laying a foundation with your immediate need. It’s best to turn to your trusted network whom you already have in those cases.

Ask better questions than “What do you do?”

There is a lot more to a person than their title, industry, or company name. By asking that immediately, you become perceived as someone who is making snap judgments based on their reply and how much it matters or is helpful to you. 

Instead, ask questions about the person. That could be ‘What are you working on that’s exciting right now?’ or ‘What motivated you to come to this event?’. 

One trick we use is to have an icebreaker question whose answer goes on guests’ name tags like “Where is your happy place?” or “If you could win a gold medal in any sport, real or fake, what would it be?”. 

Anything that allows them to light up a bit and connect as humans, not as talking business cards.

Keep your body language open

When you dart your eyes around a room, angle your body away from the person talking with you, or cross your arms so that both hands are hidden, your body language screams you don’t care and want to escape. Be respectful and be present in the moment, not hungrily looking for someone whom you think is ‘better’.

Flip the script. Give first. Value the person and a relationship with them more than getting something for yourself. It works — I’ve grown two successful companies solely through giving-centric relationships. 

So, how do you host your own networking events where you flip old-school ‘dirty’ networking on its head and create a better environment for your attendees? Read this free resource for a step-by-step guide.

And if you want to really uplevel your event, check out this ebook to find out how to create moments of connection at your event.

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