5 takeaways from a month of trial-and-error networking

Meeting up with strangers can spur promising connections—or it can eat up time, money and your tolerance for people. The dark crowdsourcing has a silver lining, though.

I’ve been working at home for almost a year now.

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, that’s been 365 days of me:

  • Talking to myself out loud
  • Talking to myself under my breath
  • Talking to myself in my head
  • Talking to my pots and pans

I realized that if I didn’t do something soon, I’d have to start talking to a psychiatrist.

So, in August, I signed up to go to a different networking activity or event each week in Chicago. I wanted to expand my business contacts, perhaps meet some new friends and, most important, spend less time conversing with inanimate objects.

Here’s where I went and what I learned:

Networking at an arcade

The premise: Give adults a bunch of free drinks and tokens to play arcade games all night. Sign me up!

Instead of talking to people, I turned out to be a ringer at the arcade’s mini-basketball court. Swish after swish, I was met by throngs of fellow networkers who gave me their business cards (um, thanks?), asked me where I played basketball in college (I didn’t) and wanted to know how long I’ve been playing (five minutes).

The takeaway: Nobody cares what you do for a living. Even if there’s not a basketball court at your next networking event, people will be more interested in your hobbies, your interests and your favorite team (the Bulls?).

Dinner with strangers

Next, I went to a networking event at a trendy Chicago restaurant where you pay $30 to dine with five random strangers. If this sounds to you like a weird night, you’re right, it was.

From the guy who droned on and on about drones—to the millennial who had her phone in her lap and continued to text throughout dinner, I was ready to leave before the appetizers came out.

The takeaway: If you don’t want to give someone your contact information, just politely say you ran out of business cards. Then, run away. If you’re slightly more gracious than I am, you can say, “It was really nice talking to you, but I’m going to see if I can find my (insert: friend, lost cat, xylophone).”

Hanging out with neighbors

So far, networking just seemed like a bunch of strangers who got together, have nothing in common but felt the need to “connect.” Being in a room with a lot of people who feel that they need to connect is no fun.

This is when I decided to start going to events with some kind of theme or purpose. Next up, I went to a monthly gathering for people who live in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Think of it like a Neighborhood Watch—without the “watch,” plus beer.

The takeaway: If you want to attend a networking event, don’t go to the ones that say “networking.” Go to an event that interests you. You might not exchange business cards, but you’ll probably like the people better.

A night with the ‘creatives’

Next, I wound up at a networking event that was geared for writers, directors, film producers and actors. OK, so maybe that’s not quite like health care marketing, but it made more sense than going to an event for people interested in renaissance martial arts.

The big question of the night here wasn’t, “What do you do?” but, “What are you working on?” People felt perfectly comfortable handing me flyers about their next movie, pulling out their iPhone to show me their latest commercial or talking about their blog.

The takeaway: Bring a friend to network with you. If not, you could fall into the trap of being that solo guy at the bar, slinging back shot after shot, bemoaning the state of the “industry” to nobody in particular.

Female business owners only

Now that I’ve been networking for a month, I’m an expert, right?

Here’s the “expert” thought I kept having throughout the month: Networking would be so much better for people if they could just network within an expanded circle of their friends. After all, isn’t that how all the best connections are made-through friends?

So, I decided to start my own networking business, Six Degrees of Friends.

Here’s how it works: I’m emailing and telling everyone I know that I’m holding the first event at Bar Louie in Chicago, Sept. 23, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Then, I’m asking my friends to tell their friends about the event.

To start the business, I needed help. That’s when I turned to theCEOffice, which hosts monthly roundtable discussions where women help other women get their business ideas off the ground.

When I pitched my business at the meeting, everyone was really excited about the idea, gave me lots of new ideas to think about and helped me figure out how to make it work. It was a fun, spirited conversation, and I left feeling the most excited I’ve been about networking.

The takeaway (actually, more of a shameless plug): If you live in Chicago you should come to my event.

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