Networking is hard. But millennials are making it way, way harder than it needs to be.

After spending an evening at a networking event for young ambitious professionals, I've become convinced that Generation Y--and many of the rest of us--can dramatically increase our networking success by changing just one thing.

It’s simple. It’s controversial. And when I mentioned it at the networking event, no one wanted to hear it.

I remain steadfast.


Have coffee. That's it.

In case this is not clear: By "coffee" I mean a low-commitment, non-alcoholic, non-meal-specific beverage. Personally, I do not like coffee. I drink tea and the occasional hot chocolate. For networking purposes, I assure you that both work fine.

By "have" I mean that you have to drink the coffee in the company of another human being, seated at the same table or a bar-style piece of furniture, no more than four physical feet apart. That gives you both plenty of personal space. Optionally, you can have a walking meeting, taking your coffee to go. Fine, so long as you don't spill your drink down your shirt or spend the whole meeting checking your fitbit. "Having coffee" over Skype does not count. Sorry.

Not Just for Luddites

When I spoke at the networking event mentioned above, the first question I got was about how to meet people in a different industry. (Phew! Easy question!)

I recounted what had worked for me: When I didn't know if I wanted to stay in journalism, I called all types of acquaintances and asked if they knew any former journalists in the fields I was considering. Then I asked for introductions. When an introduction came through, I asked if the new person would have coffee with me. I had a lot of coffees, got more introductions, and parlayed those into more coffees. It worked better than I ever would have suspected. I recommended it highly.

The response was not, "Good idea," or even "Hunh. I never thought of that." It was, "I tried that. It didn't work."

Really? It turned out that yes, the questioner--and others who chimed in--had asked for introductions, and got them. (Great!) They emailed back and forth with the new contact. They attached their resume and asked for advice. But they never asked to get together or even chat on the phone. (Not great.)

You need to get off of email and into the world, I said. "Oh no," replied my questioner. "I power map on LinkedIn." Heads nodded.

What? You power map on LinkedIn? Are you insane? You need to meet people!

Why It Works

Look, unless you're writing to Dear Abby, if you want any kind of decent advice, you need to have a conversation. If you're looking for a job, a client, an investor or a new planet, you don't know what you don't know. So you can't just ask a question, get the answer, and figure you're done. You need to have a conversation.

Email is horrible for that. (This is why good reporters can't tolerate e-mail 'reporting.') We all have too much email; it can be a week or more before even the most well-meaning friend-of-a-friend replies to a non-urgent email. When he or she does reply, and you have a follow-up question, you feel guilty for intruding on his or her time again, and there goes another week.

More important, at the end of all this email (or at the end of the coffee) there is a very good chance that you are going to be asking for a favor--probably another introduction. Would you rather do a favor for the lovable genius you've just met, or for someone you don't know, but who can write a decent email? Easy answer, right?

Now go forth and have coffee. Be the lovable genius you are.