Professional Communication Skills: Getting Crystal Clear About Networking

What is it about networking that confuses so many people?

It could be just that the word is used pretty haphazardly a lot of the time, and as a result, no specific meaning gets picked up by the people who hear it.

I know I’ve heard the word used interchangeably with “chit-chatting.” I’ll be at some kind of business function and the person in charge will say, “Well, let’s break for a few minutes so that you all can network with each other and get to know each other a little better.” And then people will fill the time exchanging pleasantries.

I’ve also experienced people at networking functions who clearly think of networking as sales. Just last week I was contacted by a member of a networking group that I had recently joined. She asked if I was interested in sitting down for coffee to explore a fit with her accounting services. I told her that I’d be glad to have coffee to network with her even though I already had an accountant, and she backed away. Clearly she saw little value out of a conversation with me if I wasn’t a prospect.

And just today I was talking with a room full of sales and marketing professionals who were asking about how to network for their company as they ran a booth at an expo. I told them that a busy booth expo may not be the ideal place to network, but a qualifying conversation might be a better solution, to find out who they are and how to treat them.

I’m sometimes accused of being too literal and too much of a hair-splitter. But when it comes to understanding networking, I think all of these things are appropriate ways to be. I want to take a minute and distinguish exactly what networking is, and what it isn’t.

Networking IS asking questions. It’s a process that necessarily involves learning about the other person.

Networking IS NOT qualifying. Qualifying are processes for distinguishing between potential customers or clients and everyone else. You’re asking questions about them to sort out for yourself which category they belong in. It’s completely appropriate to do this to determine whether or not you should have a sales conversation with them. And it’s fine to qualify someone before you decide to network with them, especially if your time is limited. But in general, I’ve experienced great benefits out of networking with anyone I find myself talking to, whoever they are.

Networking IS relationship building. This is the most important thing to understand about networking. It’s a process of leading conversations with the intention of building relationships with people that you’re talking to. The idea is to increase the pool of people you know, and the pool of people who know you to increase your standing and reputation in a target community.

Networking IS NOT chit-chatting. Chit-chatting can have the effect of building relationships because you get to know people better, you get more comfortable with them, and you may find areas of common interest. But it’s often random and directionless because it’s not about anything.

Networking IS about helping. It’s interacting with people with the intention of helping them. It’s asking questions and listening for what people need and want.

Networking IS NOT about sellingNetworking conversations have a similar structure to selling conversations, and the best sales conversations build relationships the way that networking conversations do, but there’s a critical difference between them. A sales conversation has you putting forth your product or service as a solution to the other person’s needs.

Networking IS using your network to help. A networking conversation has you finding out what the other person needs, and then seeing what you can do to connect to somebody who can help — somebody in your network. And this is why they call it networking.

So, in sum, networking is targeting a community of people that you want to impact. It’s engaging people in that community with the intention of helping them. It’s leading conversations with them to find out what they need. And it’s connecting them to the people that you know who can help them.

What do you think of this distinction? Is it helpful to have a clear idea of what you should and shouldn’t be doing when you network? Share your feedback below! And if you want to grow your networking skills in a live venue with a room full of peers to practice with, join us in our first BE CONNECTED of 2013! We’d love to have you!


  1. sanjayrakecha on November 29, 2012 at 3:05 am

    Nicely presented, thanks for valuable information.

    • Pete Machalek on November 29, 2012 at 9:07 pm

      My pleasure, Sanjay — Thank you the kind words!

  2. Greg on November 29, 2012 at 8:03 am

    Great thoughts, thanks Pete! So, if you do have a product and/or service to offer…at what point does the networking – the relationship being built – become solving that person’s need? If you are the connection to helping that person – how do you know when it’s time to offer the solution?

    • Pete Machalek on November 29, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      Great question, Greg! If, during a networking conversation, you determine that you can directly help the person you’re speaking to, then you can introduce the thing you have to offer to them at the moment you recognize that there is a fit.

      My recommendation is to do it in a question-oriented way, and start by confirming the fit. Let me give you an example from the SagePresence perspective:

      (Over the course of the conversation, I’ve heard the other person say that she is prepping for an important presentation, and she really wants it to go well.)

      YOU: So this is a really important presentation, and you want it to go well.
      THEM: Yeah.
      YOU: Are you interested in some help? I run a company that’s all about helping business professionals present themselves powerfully and effectively under pressure.
      THEM: Really? Tell me more.

      Does this answer your question, Greg?

      • Greg on November 30, 2012 at 5:40 am

        Indeed it does sir – thank you!

  3. Deborah on November 29, 2012 at 8:09 am

    I just KNEW you were my soul-brother, Pete! You struck such a chord when you said, “I’m sometimes accused of being too literal… a hair-splitter.” I too, press for understanding of what is and isn’t, and you explained the purpose of networking with great clarity and deep insight. I especially like the idea that networking is to increase the pool of people you know, and the pool of people who know you to increase your standing and reputation in a target community. Thank you.

    • Pete Machalek on November 29, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      Thanks, Deb! Yeah, I think there’s great uncertainty about the specifics of why we should network. A lot of recognize in general that we should network, but aren’t really clear on any specific whys.

  4. Barb Dusek on November 29, 2012 at 11:20 am

    A favorite colleague and mentor of mine, Steve Kloyda, offered me a key phrase during his sales training, “keep the purpose of the meeting the PURPOSE of the meeting.” This applies so well to making networking meetings meaningful. Thanks, Pete!

    • Pete Machalek on November 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      Very cool, Barb! So many people I know hate the idea of a meaningless conversation just for the sake of filling up time. It sounds like Steve would really resonate with them!

  5. Diane Kinman on November 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    I will send this article along to some engineers I know who still don’t understand why they can’t dive into talking about the next project before they get to know who they are talking to. Well stated!

    • Pete Machalek on November 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      Thanks, Diane! Yeah, we all have a tendency to think that networking is talking about ourselves and what we’re up to. It may come into the mix at some point, but the conversation most likely won’t go well if we front load it that way.

  6. Charity Campbell on December 2, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    From my understanding networking is about meeting people and keeping in contact with them to see if there is any give-and-take that can be done either soon or down the road. Connecting with them through the internet (and Online Communication just happens to be the focus of the bachelor’s degree I am pursuing) allows a better understanding of who each other are and makes it easier for future reference.

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