Secrets of a Master Networker
Oprah mapped out her future on a napkin while on a date at Hamburger Hamlet. Spielberg cooked up the idea for DreamWorks while socializing at a White House state dinner. And I went from answering phones to staging high-profile events for the president on a daily basis.
I served at the White House for eight years, from 1993 to 2001. I was 19 when I started as a volunteer and quickly moved up the ranks to staff assistant, Midwest press secretary, director of television, and, ultimately, White House director of events.
As director of events, I saw opportunities both capitalized on and lost through the course of just one event. Some guests came to eat, drink, and leave with the White House towels stuffed in their pockets. Others came to eat, drink, and leave with ideas they could turn into reality and relationships they could turn into lasting partnerships.
I grew up in a photography business my parents built from scratch. I could see how it succeeded in large part through their lifetime of building genuine, long-lasting relationships. My White House experience reaffirmed my belief in the power of building relationships outside the office. Whether an annual convention, regional meeting, weekend retreat, nonprofit gala, committee meeting, or daily coffee run, what may seem like a mere social occasion can profoundly change one’s life—but only when guests and hosts realize it.
I approach social occasions in two basic ways. First, rather than looking at an event as optional, I see it as opportunity. Second, I look at networking not in a manipulative way, as in “What can I get from you?” Rather, I look at it from the standpoint of “What can I do for you?” I truly believe it is through helping others succeed that we achieve success ourselves.
Business in Black Tie
A state dinner at the White House is glamorous and social, no doubt about it. It’s also the most coveted party invitation in the political power scene. When it gets down to basics, it’s really just a business meeting in black tie. At these events, major deals are clinched even before the president and visiting heads of state ask everyone to raise their glasses for the first ceremonial toast.
It was at a state dinner for Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin on Sept 29, 1994, that three guests—Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffery Katzenberg, all invited separately—found themselves talking through dinner and late into the night about their common interests. Thirteen days later, they announced one of the biggest partnerships and film studios of all time, DreamWorks.
These guys did not come up with this idea in an office, on a studio lot, or anywhere near Hollywood. In fact, Spielberg recalled the night in Joseph McBride’s 1999 book, Steven Spielberg: A Biography: “We’re in tuxedos talking about a brand-new studio, and just across from us there’s Yeltsin and Bill Clinton talking about disarming the world of nuclear weapons.”
This just proves you don’t have to be in your office to create the next big success. In fact, I firmly believe we are most open to new ideas, and often come up with our best ideas, at annual conventions, off-site meetings, and cocktail parties thousands of miles away from the office.
You certainly don’t have to be at a state dinner to make a powerful networking connection. Oprah says the most important decision of her professional life came about as the result of some figures doodled on a napkin while dining with film critic Roger Ebert at a Hamburger Hamlet. In this era of economic trials and technology essential for interpersonal communication, we must embrace and continue to grow opportunities for face-to-face meetings. Social events associated with conventions are career opportunities. A cocktail party at a convention, a luncheon, and even the 15-minute break between educational sessions could be simply opportunities to eat and drink. Or they could be your chance to really connect.
Mastering the Moment
I’m not suggesting you slip your résumé under someone’s drink at an event, but do use your napkin as your to-do list—your master plan! For instance, you might start by turning that long line to the open bar into a one-on-one “chance” meeting. You can easily open with your passion for the evening’s cause and close by arranging your next meeting in someone’s corner office. Since those three minutes in line may be the only time you get to make an impression, you’ve got to make every second count. That’s why it’s crucial to plan your networking strategies before you even walk in the door.
That starts with identifying your social scenes, learning the tips and techniques to empower yourself as a guest, and getting invited to and attending powerful events. In social networking, as in most things, knowledge is power. So it’s also important to do your homework.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to begin a conversation or join one in progress is to arm yourself with the latest information on a wide range of topics—an easy task in the Internet age. By being current on a breadth of subjects, you’ll appear both credible and impressive because of your ability to interact as an active participant on many topics, not just a few.
You don’t need to become an expert. By reading the front page of each section of the newspaper—world, business, sports, entertainment, style, and local news—you can be ready to comment on any topic. At the very least, you’ll want to make the most of the time you spend getting dressed or driving to the event. You’ll be amazed at the information you retain that you’ve heard in the background. I recommend you spend 30 minutes tuned into a TV news channel or radio station like NPR. And always take the time to find out the closing stock positions of any companies that will be present at the gathering before you walk out the door. A stock’s performance can tell you when to congratulate and when to talk about something else.
Because these events are opportunities to make the right impression, you’ll ultimately achieve your goals not by asking what people can do for you, but what you can do for others. My career path from White House volunteer to point person behind more than 1,000 events resulted from an ability to harness social connections. My story may be unique, but my ability to turn conversation into opportunity is not. One thing I’ve learned from colleagues and mentors all over the world is that each one of us is powerful and, to varying extents, social. The secret is knowing when, where, and how to use that power to reach your goals and to help someone else reach theirs. Whether it’s a conference, business lunch, birthday party, or black-tie gala, you have the power to make every event beneficial and the power to make an impact.
Author, national television commentator, and motivational speaker Laura Schwartz networked her way from answering phones for the White House press office at the age of 19 to producing more than 1,000 events as White House director of events. In her book Eat, Drink and Succeed—she shares her belief in the power of networking and some tips on how to make the most of social situations. Laura Schwartz’s Eat, Drink & Succeed is available for $16.95 in bookstores and online from Amazon.com and www.EatDrinkandSucceed.com.