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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