Some people line up lunches and coffee dates because they’re in search of a job, venture funding, or clients for their company. But if that’s the reason you’re having a networking meeting, you — and your invitee — aren’t likely to get much satisfaction. As Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and her colleagues have noted, “transactional networking” — i.e., “networking with the goal of advancement” — often makes participants feel so bad about themselves, they feel “dirty.”
That doesn’t mean you should never initiate meetings if you have a specific, immediate goal in mind. But that shouldn’t be confused with “networking.” If you’re honest with your intentions upfront (“I have a new startup, I’m seeking angel funding, and I think you’d be a great partner”), then the other person can make an informed decision about whether to connect. But networking — meeting with the goal of building a robust set of connections over time — is a different process with its own set of best practices. Here’s how to do it successfully.
Research in order to find a commonality. How do you build an immediate connection? According to psychologist Robert Cialdini, the answer is to find a commonality with the other person as quickly as possible. If you happen to meet someone at a conference, you can steer the conversation and try to dig for possibilities (perhaps you might live in the same neighborhood or have kids the same age), but with a pre-planned networking meeting, you have an edge that surprisingly few people take full advantage of: the ability to research the person online beforehand.
Using LinkedIn, Twitter, and other online search results, you can almost certainly find something you share that will serve as a conversation starter. A shared alma mater, hobby, or professional interest can quickly get the person to see you as a peer and someone “on their team.” Starting with a commonality, and then branching into some thoughtful prepared questions about them and their business, will ensure the discussion gets off to a good start. (And help you avoid painfully hackneyed queries like, “What keeps you up at night?”)