Never Eat Alone: Do Your Homework

This is the fourth of sixteen parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s Never Eat Alone, where this book on building a lifelong community of colleagues, contacts, friends, and mentors is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the seventh and eighth chapters, “Do Your Homework” and “Take Names,” which appear on pages 67 through 78.

neaI’m planning on attending SXSW Interactive in March 2010. For those of you who don’t know what that is, SXSW Interactive is a conference that covers interactive media (which, of course, I’m involved with), and I may even be presenting. I also hope to be able to pass out some copies of my next book there.

Of course, a big reason for attending is that I hope to meet quite a few people (many of them I’ve talked to online, but meeting face to face is a bit more concrete). I actually have a list of people I want to meet, shake hands with, and perhaps get to know a bit – mostly other bloggers who write on topics that are of interest to me.

So how will I make that happen with any degree of success? This section of Never Eat Alone lays out a plan for that very thing.

Study Up!
On page 67, Ferrazzi offers great advice for anyone attending a conference with people they want to get to know – or even just a lunch with someone they don’t know well:

Before I meet with any new people I’ve been thinking of introducing myself to, I research who they are and what their business is. I find out what’s important to them: their hobbies, challenges, goals – inside their business and out. Before the meeting, I generally prepare, or have my assistant prepare, a one-page synopsis on the person I’m about to meet. The only criterion for what should be included is that I want to know what this person is like as a human being, what he or she feels strongly about, and what his or her proudest achievements are.

When I first read this, I actually thought it was almost creepy. Why would you prepare a profile of someone? That seems… stalker-ish.

But when I thought about it, I realized that it’s actually not creepy at all. Think of it this way – if you’re about to attend a professional conference, wouldn’t it be awesome if the people who actually were interested in meeting you had such a page in hand, so they would actually know what to talk to you about?

In other words, if you’re willing to prepare such a page about someone (so that you can get right past the small talk and start actually having a useful conversation), it’s a sign that you actually value making that connection. You’re putting forth effort in advance to make this work because it’s important to you to actually meet that person and click with them.

From that perspective, it’s a pretty cool idea. I’d actually be flattered if I found that someone who wanted to build a professional relationship with me came to the table prepared, allowing us to skip the small talk and get down to things we have in common.

Can You Help?
Why skip the small talk? The small talk doesn’t have any real value, and it doesn’t give you any opportunities to really help. On page 68:

Setting out to know someone inevitably means understanding what their problems or needs are. At work, it may be their product line. But as you talk with the person, you’ll also find out that perhaps their kids are hoping to land an internship, that they themselves have health issues, or they just want to cut strokes off their golf game. The point is, you have to reach beyond the abstract to get to someone as an individual.

Everyone has areas of their life that they care deeply about, and people that can help in those areas immediately become valuable.

Here’s a great example from my own life. I’ve been trying to join a farmer’s co-op in my area for years. There’s a long waiting list to get in, so I’d like to be able to find either someone who’s willing to give me their spot or another co-op that’s got room for me. If I met someone who could make that happen, I’d immediately find that person useful.

Obviously, you readers now know this. But if I bumped into someone on the street, they wouldn’t know this, and we’d likely never put it together through idle chit-chat. That’s where a bit of research pays off – you can get right past that idle chit-chat and start talking about things that actually matter, the things you’re both passionate about.

Someone who reads The Simple Dollar, has done a bit of research, and bumps into me at a conference (and wants to build a relationship) might say, “Hey, I know this great Italian restaurant. Want to catch dinner?” or “Have you seen that independent bookstore just down the block?” or “Don’t go to the hotel bar if you want a good gin and tonic – go across the street, where they use actual good gin.” Or many other things that you might have been able to figure out from reading The Simple Dollar.

Right there, your research has paid off – you know something I value and are able to contribute some useful information. I now find you valuable and worthwhile, at least more so than before, and I’m likely to invite you along for a much longer chat.

An Opportunity to Bond
What’s the advantage of this? Ferrazzi keeps going on page 70:

The idea is to find a point of common ground that is deeper and richer than what can be discovered in a serendipitous encounter. Armed with knowledge about a person’s passions, needs, or interests, you can do more than connect; you’ll have an opportunity to bond and impress.

That’s really it in a nutshell. If you can find that thread of common interest quickly and effectively and if you can find some value to exchange, you’re much, much more likely to start building a worthwhile relationship with the person in question.

This is the complete opposite of the “schmoozer” mentioned earlier in the book. This is all about being useful and providing value.

Of course, this takes time. If your goal is just to press as many business cards as you can into people’s palms, you’re never going to be able to build these kinds of value-based relationships.

By Location
One advantage of amassing connections all across the country is that it adds value to every trip you take. On page 76, Ferrazzi expands on this idea:

I … create call sheets by region, listing the people I know and those I’d like to know. When I’m in a given town, I try to phone as many people as I can.

This is one of the big reasons to have a big online address book that contains geographical locations. Let’s say you’re going to travel to, say, Tacoma, on a work trip. You can search your address book for everyone you know in Oregon and check to see which ones are in the Tacoma and Seattle areas.

Then, when you have a schedule for your trip, get ahold of those people and set up some meetings. Have coffee with those folks. Almost every trip has significant downtime – why not fill it with meeting people you’d like to know?

Near the end of my previous career, I started doing this with gusto. I would constantly meet with people both in my career path and outside of it while traveling and rarely ate alone. It not only made the trips more interesting, but it helped me build some really great relationships.

Who Do I Want To Know?
How can you have any idea who you want to meet if you’ve never gone to a conference before? Ferrazzi answers that question on page 76:

When you’re looking for people to reach out to, you’ll find them everywhere. One great resource for making lists is – it almost sounds absurd – other people’s lists. Newspapers and magazines do rankings of this sort all the time.

You know what field the conference is in. Just make a big list of people you’d like to meet. Find interesting people online and see if they’ll be there. Or start with the conference program – dig through it, see who’ll be there, and research some of them to learn more about them.

Eventually, you will find quite a few people you want to meet – and if you don’t, why on earth are you going to this meeting?

My problem is usually figuring out people to focus on, because when I read the program for an interesting meeting (and research some of the people), I see tons of people I want to meet.

Aspirational Contacts
On page 77, Ferrazzi talks about “aspirational contacts” – people we’d love to meet someday:

There’s another category you might want to add, something I call my “aspirational contacts.” There are those extremely high-level people who have nothing to do with my business at hand but are just, well, interesting or successful or both. The people on the list can be anyone from heads of state and media moguls to artists and actors, to people others speak highly of.

I have a list like this, actually. People on it include Dave Ramsey and Stephen King. These aren’t people that I know at all right now, nor do I have their contact information. But I’d like to, and if I ever have an opportunity to legitimately contact the people on this list, I’d jump at it.

Why have these people? To be honest, I have little interest in meeting most “famous” people. I’d only like to meet people whose work interests me in some deep way.

So I keep a list, to remind me that I should always keep looking up.

Who’s on your aspirational list? Why?

On Wednesday, we’ll tackle the ninth and tenth chapters – “Warming the Cold Call” and “Managing the Gatekeeper – Artfully.”

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  1. Leah says:

    This might be nit-picky, but Tacoma and Seattle are in Washington and not in Oregon.

  2. Alice says:

    Ditto to Leah. You could add Portland (2.5 hour drive south of Tacoma) if you wanted to go to Oregon.

  3. kristine says:

    Mixed feelings about this. It seems to focus on the value of people as their usefulness to you, and vice versa.

    OK, this can be innocuous, useful possibly meaning someone to share a common interest with. But it comes across as barter system- I am useful to you this way- you are useful to me that way.

    That may be true, but there is a beauty to the happenstance. Forging ahead as if social connections are a goal to be met is somehow a real turn-off.

    Maybe those who “just let it happen” are not as successful. But 100% of their connections are genuine, spontaneous good natured interactions, not calculated and evaluated. It’s based on like, not commodity value.

    As a primarily emotional thinker, I would not be flattered by someone who did “research” on me- I would immediately assume this person had an agenda. And if only came out much later in the relationship- then I would find their intentions retroactively suspect, and it would damage the connection as some form of breach of trust.

    I am wondering if this is because I am female, and welcome opinions on whether there ids a gender discrepancy on this one. I wonder if your wife makes connections in this same fashion, or at least her opinion on it.

    Your approach may be fine and accepted by some, but you will come across people who find this approach much too Macheavelian. And if you hide your “research” to work around such a response, what, too, does that say?

    I reminds me, just a tad, of the people who befriend you to add you to their home party-selling lists.

    PS- I am sure if you just wrote to Dave Ramsey, he would meet with you, given all the free publicity you afford him!

  4. Java Monster says:

    That’s a lot of (and I’ll say it) creepy effort to get to know someone in advance of meeting them.

    Small-talk–what is it about small-talk that seems to make some people, and I’m going to generalize and say MEN, think that it’s a distasteful and unnecessary part of socializing? It’s a skill, and not everyone can do it, but it’s a form of communications wherein both parties can figure out if they have anything in common, or if personalities clash or, as in many women’s cases, whether or not the person coming up to them is setting off alarm bells.

    I fully agree with Kristine’s post, btw.

  5. Courtney says:

    Don’t know where you live, exactly, but localharvest.org has a list of CSAs. There are 71 listings for CSAs.

    FYI, even most prospective employers will at least google you for a background check. Googling someone you want to meet isn’t that strange.

  6. Courtney says:

    71 CSAs in Iowa. Sorry! ;)

  7. IRG says:

    Kristine, #3 writes:
    Maybe those who “just let it happen” are not as successful. But 100% of their connections are genuine, spontaneous good natured interactions, not calculated and evaluated. It’s based on like, not commodity value.

    That’s it, in a nutshell, to me as well. Real networking has to be organic. (There is a grat quote in the I Ching about not making unnatural (as in forced/fake) connections.)

    There’s so much fake, phoney and forced stuff going on that something that is real and genuine has far more appeal than those based on “let’s make a deal” at some point or the other.

    FYI: To me, there’s a difference between doing some casual research online about a person (but keeping in mind that not everything you find may be accurate) and preparing in-depth research of the kind mentioned in the book excerpt. That’s just invasive.

    It’s one thing to be a genuine “fan” of someone you have not yet met, but might. Loads of public people have a “following” as it were. But it’s another to always be looking at someone for what they might do for you. And most folks are really good at seeing those folks for who they are.

    If you have genuine interests that are shared, a legit way to help…great. But most people do not have those things with the people they meet. Hence, meet as strangers and see what develops legitimately.

    I’ve met lots of people over the years. The best were those that sprung up spontaneously and were not based on our jobs, our positions and/or our ability to “do something” for each other. It’s amazed me who I’ve gotten to know by not “seeking” them.

    This kind of network is really close to professional “stalking” in its own way.

  8. Kevin says:

    “If I met someone who could make that happen, I’d immediately find that person useful.”

    Perhaps it’s just that this is clumsily stated, but THAT sentence is “creepy”. “Useful” – as in, “I can now USE this person to get what I want.”

    After the first post in this series, I thought I’d perhaps pick up a copy. At this point however, the book is beginning to seem distasteful… (an I’m a believer in networking!)

    Maybe it’s just the personal examples you provide, and how they’re described.

    And ditto the comment about small talk. There’s nothing inherently wrong with small talk, and doing it well with a diverse group of people is a genuine skill.

  9. Doug says:

    To Kristine (#3):
    If you focus on your friends, you will find they are “useful” to you. It’s the basis of those we connect with.

    While I am friendly to people who have nothing in common with me, I can’t call them friends. They provide no “usefulness” in my life. Not that they aren’t nice and good people. But, my friends will be people I can game with, or who I can fish with, or with who I can talk about the world’s problems.

    Think of it this way: many people socialize with their coworkers. Coworkers are useful. Thus, building bonds with coworkers can make your work life better.

    I think part of the “creepiness” factor you see is that the book sets up a goal of meeting/networking with people. Just like any goal, you need a plan to make it successful. There are darned few successful endeavors that occur by happenstance. Setting a goal of “never eating alone” means you need to do some planning, and this includes doing some legwork.

    That said, relationships cannot be forced. The toxic networker will come across as slimy, but if someone on my “want to meet list” is at a conference, and I find their Facebook page and learn he enjoys flyfishing . . . what’s the harm in mentioning that? He likes flyfishing, I like flyfishing, and he has a production issue that I can offer advice on because I’ve got some 6-sigma training . . . .

    I also recognize something else. This book treats social contacts like some dating advice articles: Get out there and ask. “Throwing a wide net” to see if anything sticks. Professional contacts are slightly easier, because there’s usually something you already have in common.

    As for my “aspirational” list, I’d very much like to meet George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods), and Zig Ziglar. Robin Williams and Alton Brown. And I wouldn’t turn down a DnD game with Vin Diesel and Wil Wheaton, either . . . .

  10. Des says:

    Maybe I’m some sort of exception, but I am female and I do not feel the way kristine does. I would be quite flattered if someone put such a sheet together, I don’t think it is creepy at all. Everyone knows that information on the Internet is public, and therefore isn’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) be anything you don’t mind strangers knowing. I also agree that small-talk is mind-numbing. I realize it is generally a necessary evil, but it is still much more pleasant and mutually edifying to have a genuine conversation.

  11. kristine says:

    “Everyone knows that information on the Internet is public, and therefore isn’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) be anything you don’t mind strangers knowing.”

    Des- If you are able to control what is out there about you on the internet- you have my humble admiration. 90% of what is out there may be nothing you actually post, or wanted posted, and some may not even be true. And just wait until medical records are stored online for doctors easy access! If banks can be hacked, anything can, or it can even appear online by accident- we hear the stories everyday. Scary, really.

    Re; real conversation- getting to know someone is like a dance. If you jump straight into an intense tango, you miss out on the elegance of falling into rhythm together. Anyone doubting this should watch the small talk of “Indiscreet.” Best small talk on the big screen. (Ingrid Bergman and Carey Grant)

    Besides, it’s just akward to act like a friend before you’ve earned the right to. I believe it’s what they call over-familiar, and a social faux pas. As in when a salesperson addresses me by first name without asking.

    I think what troubles me about Trent’s post is the seeming lack of boundaries between business and social connections. They appear to overlap, and the same kind of research is not appropriate for both. My life is not so integrated as to lack the distinctions, nor would I want it to be.

  12. Sharon L says:

    Ummm… Generally one goes to a CONFERENCE for BUSINESS reasons. What overlap?

  13. kristine says:

    I think it is where he talks about taking a trip for business, but then looking up all kinds of interesting people, the food coop, etc. Not directly business related.

    And if it is purely business, the part in the book about being able to immediately deepen the conversation to say, the person’s health problems, is a bit creepy. It’s a fact-finding mission that transgresses into way too personal matters, or an attempt at social friendship that is tainted by too much up-front manipulation.

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