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Every freelance professional knows the drill. You enter a door to some event space and there's a desk with name tags on it. "Hi! My name is ________." You take a black marker and write your name on the small blank canvas. You peel off the nametag and stick it to your shirt. And yes, it will fall off several times during the next two hours. A smiling young woman or man behind the desk says "hi!" and points you to a food table.
You grab a beer or a glass of wine and look around. People are clustered in circles of four or five. Most of these people are young writers and editors, or maybe designers or videographers. You walk up to the edge of a circle of chatting people and lean your head into the ongoing conversation. A woman or man smiles at you, takes one step to the side and lets you enter the circle. You nod, introducing yourself and shaking hands all around.
People are engaged, energetically discussing the creative life and how to make connections with audiences. This being an event for writers and editors or designers, the conversation turns to clients and how we approach the process of telling stories and making designs for our clients. It's fun to talk with friendly folks engaged in the same daily activities, with the same ups and downs, as you are.
One of the main reasons to attend networking events is to help make connections with other creative professionals, the kind of people who can refer you to potential clients or hire you outright. You might also want to network as a way to manage the isolation and loneliness of being a freelancer. Community can be a great way to help your business and it can enable you to maintain good mental health too.
The foundation of good networking: Give before you get
You shouldn’t network with “getting” in mind. The best networkers give first, putting faith in karma and the psychological rule of reciprocity: When you do for others, they naturally seek to return the kindness. In my experience, you invariably get a much higher return than you'd ever expected when you help someone and don't expect something in return.
I like to introduce people whenever I find there's a match between what somebody wants to do (a freelancer seeking to write for a technology client, for example) and what somebody needs (an editor or marketing leader who's looking for a technology writer). For me, networking is first about making connections for others. And yes, indirectly, I make connections for myself too, but that’s a secondary concern
I didn't learn this “give first” style of networking on my own, but from people who recommended me to friends in need, and did so without expectation of return. Author Dorie Clark is a great example. She recommended me several years ago to the biggest writing client I have right now. She barely knew me then, but she created an opportunity for me by recommending me to this client. She also showed me that this is what great networkers do: help others first.
Prioritize a few "real" connections over multiple shallow ones
Networking, suggests Clark in her book, Stand Out Networking, isn't about passing out business cards or adding names to some database or spreadsheet. When we network, we don't need to be fake or bring our smooth, practiced elevator pitches. Keeping it (and ourselves) "real" is the best and only thing that works to turn acquaintances into deep relationships that help our businesses and lives.
What matters most at any networking event is the quality of the human interactions, not the quantity. You can spend your entire time talking to two people, and have the event be a smashing success. You can also walk around the room handing out fifty business cards and chatting with people for ten seconds each, and have absolutely zero impact. That’s a fail for sure.
In his must-read book on networking, Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi says it best:
“Today’s most valuable currency is social capital, defined as the information, expertise, trust, and total value that exist in the relationships you have and social networks to which you belong.”
And the best way to build those crucial relationships, Ferrazzi repeatedly says, is by giving first.
The takeaway here is simple: When we help others and expect no immediate return, we do the most important thing any person or business can do. We build connections and deepen human relationships that sustain us as people and help grow our freelance businesses.
In the end, that’s what networking is about.
Boston-based Chuck Leddy is a freelance B2B Brand Storyteller who connects brands and customers through engaging stories. His clients include Sojourn Solutions, The Boston Globe's BG Brand Lab, MITx, abas USA, and The National Center for the Middle Market. His website is www.ChuckLeddy.com.