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June 30, 2008
Getting to Know You

In the days of vaudeville, there was a popular Abbott & Costello-type comedy routine called “Niagara Falls.” It involved a man who, recounting a rejection from his fiance, would go into a hypnotic state each time he heard the words “Niagara Falls.” He would turn slowly, rubber prop in hand, and beat the living daylights out of his poor partner, who unwittingly kept repeating the phrase.

For me, the term “networking” is my “Niagara Falls.” Whenever I’m invited to a “networking event,” a funny thing happens. The dread of subjecting myself to the process causes my eyes to glaze over, rendering me nearly comatose.

Supporters of these get-togethers will tell you, “It’s a great way to meet people. It’s very productive – the only way to get new business!” Then why would so many people prefer having their teeth drilled to attending one? To many entrepreneurs, these gatherings are artificial and inauthentic - nothing more than fast-talk, glad-handing, and a blizzard of business cards. The underlying message usually is “I want to get your business” rather than “I’d like to get to know you.”

If you’re like me, this three-ring competition for contacts goes against your nature. Why? Because a large segment of the working population doesn’t “network”… these folks seek out and build relationships. To them, people are more than just contacts, customers and employees. Genuine interest in getting to know someone – male or female - goes beyond basic curiosity, and it’s not about gossip. It’s part of our hardwiring.

In 2002, researchers and doctors at Emory University in Atlanta conducted the first MRI study of “real time” social interaction (scans were taken during mental and physical activity, as opposed to just having participants look at images or listen to recorded examples). A group of young women participated in a laboratory game called “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” and brain activity was measured in the women as they played this game together, with each participant choosing from a number of selfish or cooperative strategies in a bid for monetary gain.

The Emory researchers initially set out to show that a woman’s brain reacts the same way each time it strives for a goal, no matter what the plan is for achieving that goal. What they discovered was quite surprisingly the opposite. When a participant’s chosen strategy for increasing her money reflected a selfish or greedy premise, a small region of the brain showed activity. But when cooperative alliances were formed with other women toward the same goal, the brain not only lit up like a Christmas tree, it radiated in regions that scientists know to be directly related to reward behavior… the same areas that respond to chocolate cake, sex, beautiful pictures, and other assorted delights.

Even more interesting, it was the perception of bonding with other humans, not the money, these women responded to. When participants played the same game against a computer, the reward behavior regions were significantly less responsive.

Is it any wonder, then, that our eyes glaze over at the thought of having to attend yet another networking event? Here we are seeking the reward of human bonding when the strategy of the networking game is “He Who Has the Most Business Cards Wins.”

When you genuinely connect with someone, you grow as you learn about them, and are inspired by their stories. They in turn learn about you as a person and what you have to offer in the professional world. You develop a level of trust, support, and loyalty, creating a strongly woven tapestry of relationships.

The near warp-speed evolution of technology is making our small world spin a little faster each day - voicemail, fax, email, video conferencing, the internet, wi-fi communication, to name a few. Less and less time is available for old-fashioned, ‘crowded-room shindigs,’ and as the line between our personal and professional lives is increasingly blurred, the strength of the fabric in our individual tapestries is more important than ever. Thus, the phenomenon known as the blogosphere, is born.. This is the future of communication – connecting with others and at the same time allowing our own personal voices to be heard ‘round the world.

The next time a networking event takes place in your area, try something new. Pick up the phone, call a colleague, and ask her for the name of a business acquaintance she thinks you would enjoy meeting. Make a date with both of them for dinner and, on the night of the event, spend time getting to each other over a great meal in a nice restaurant - while everyone else is down the street doing the “Network Shuffle.”

Which do you think will be more productive… and fulfilling?

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Michele Miller is a partner in the Wizard of Ads marketing firm, with clients that include Best Buy and Timberland. She is an international speaker and the author of "The Soccer Mom Myth." Her blog on marketing to women, WonderBranding, has won numerous awards and is included on the prestigious “Best of the Web” list compiled by Forbes.com.

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