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We’ve talked a lot on this blog about networking, and for good reason. It’s an essential part of any job search or career advancement strategy.
But when you think about “networking,” where are you picturing yourself? At an industry convention? At a job fair? Maybe even in front of the computer, researching your best leads for a networking email?
Chances are there are several places you’re not thinking of. Like standing in line at Starbucks, or sitting in a doctor’s waiting room or boarding a plane for a holiday trip home to your family. But according to master “random connector” David Topus, if you pass up these golden opportunities, you could be missing out.
The Hidden Potential of Total Strangers
In his book Talk to Strangers: How Everyday Random Encounters Can Expand Your Business, Career, Income, and Life, Topus discusses how he has made numerous priceless connections with people through what he calls “random connecting”—i.e., chatting up the people you come across in everyday, non-professional situations.
He even goes so far as to book flights from one big city to the next when he has no real reason to make the trip other than talking to his seatmates on the plane, fellow travelers in the boarding line and executives between flights in the airport lounge. (Most of us don’t have the funds to connect quite that randomly, but it’s an intriguing idea.)
Topus’s argument is anyone you come across in life could potentially hold the key to something you need or want, be it personally or professionally. She might be an employee at the company you’re interested in working for, and you can ask her questions about the working environment and corporate culture. He might be a graphic designer, which is exactly what you’ve been looking for to get your new website launched. Even if the person you meet doesn’t hold any skills or positions that would be useful to you, maybe they know someone who does—a son, a friend, a neighbor.
The world, in this viewpoint, is one big networking-pa-looza, just waiting for you to dive in and start making connections. But how exactly do you do that?
How to Randomly Connect (Successfully)
Of course, it isn’t quite as easy as turning to the person behind you in line and launching into your elevator pitch. Networking by traditional means can feel awkward enough, but when it comes to trying to network with people who aren’t close to expecting a networking overture, you need to approach carefully.
Here are some key pieces of advice to keep in mind:
1. Be aware of the other person’s openness (or lack thereof). If someone has their headphones on as they hunch over their laptop, chances are they’re not open to a sudden chat-up. If, however, you catch someone’s glance and she gives you a friendly smile, she’s probably okay with being approached.
2. Use contextual topics for your introduction. Did the person in front of you just order your favorite sandwich from this café? Is the line for the plane you’re boarding taking longer than usual? People are more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger if that stranger mentions something they’re both experiencing in the moment. It feels a lot less threatening than “Hi! My name is Tom!!! What’s your name?”
3. Look for clues as to how this person can be helpful to you. Sure, you can come right out and say “So, what do you do for a living?” but the conversation will feel more natural (and the other person will feel more comfortable) if you can segue into the topic. Learn to ask questions that will lead to the information you want to know. Comment on the book they’re reading by saying “Is that for business, or pleasure?” Ask what brings them to the airport. Wonder if they’re heading back to the office after they grab this cup of coffee.
4. Be genuinely interested. People love talking about themselves. So be authentically curious about what the other person is saying, and ask follow-up questions that demonstrate your interest—in how they feel about their job, what they think of current industry trends—not solely in what they can do for you.
5. Mention what you can do for them. Networking goes both ways. If you specialize in a service or have a special skill that could really benefit your new friend, make sure to mention it—not in a sleazy, “Well, whaddya know?” kind of way, but in an off-the-cuff “I just happen to be in that line of business!” comment. Don’t try to do a full presentation in this quick encounter; just toss out some key, compelling facts about your abilities and mention you’d be happy to follow up with them in the future.
6. Make sure to follow up, tastefully. Even the most enjoyable random connection will probably slip out of someone’s mind the instant they get back to their regular day. So make sure before parting ways that you get some sort of contact information from the other person—their email address, their business card, etc. Then send them a quick message saying you enjoyed meeting them and offering something to make sure they keep you in mind. Send a link to an article you think they’d find interesting based on your conversation. Remind them of a business need they mentioned and say you’d be happy to offer some recommendations on how you could help. Keep it light, brief and professional, and you never know what it might lead to…
What do you think of the idea of “random connecting?” Would you feel comfortable doing this, or does it feel too pushy?
Kelly Gurnett is Assistant Editor of Brazen Life and runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.