Most people hear the word "networking" and flashback to a corporate event at a moderately swanky bar full of young professionals. Everyone wears a nametag and tries to drink in moderation and give the most entertaining summary of their job. Occasionally these events are interrupted by short speeches by members of company leadership that are paced so no one knows when to laugh or clap or both. Sometimes guests are forced to comply with the event planners' decision to implement some kind of ice breaker, or worse, a game to the already awkward proceedings.
If you're lucky, you'll meet maybe three relevant contacts to your business idea and land a meeting with only one. I'd give chances that this meeting produces any tangible results or benefits at, eh, one in four. Sure, this approach to networking lands us a lot of free drinks and an excuse to leave the office on time, but that's hardly the intention. For how focused the startup world and the firms funding them are on demonstrating potential scale and profitably, we sure are committed to a networking ritual with an extremely low ROI. It isn't that networking events are inherently broken, it is that in the effort to make them less awkward, we often produce precisely the opposite effect. The advice I am about to give on making things less awkward is going to sound even more ridiculous than the most incoherent drunk guy at the open bar but bear with me: treat networking like you would treat dating.
Now don't get ahead of yourself and start thinking of ways to compliment that VC guy's hair or ask about where his parents live and how often he visits. What I mean is, if you're any good at dating, you come up with thoughtful activities that both of you will enjoy where you can actually be doing something instead of just wringing answers out of each other over drinks or dinner for two hours. Social media investigation and rapport building brings out a lot of information about people's favorite activities and their interests. If someone you want to meet runs marathons, offer to train with them if the relationship is close enough. If a new contact is known for their love of fine art, suggest a very quick drink then head off to the latest small gallery opening of an up and coming painter. These meaningful engagements translate into opportunities to have a more meaningful twice the engagement with them while also demonstrating you're not just another couple of drinks in a company hoodie.
And don't forget that your interests can be used as catalysts to engagement too. In addition to my entrepreneurial and business interests, I use my Twitter feed to showcase the photography I do as a fairly serious hobby. It inevitably comes up in conversations as it is somewhat unexpected from a guy running a publishing tech startup. More than once, these conversations have turned to offers for me to take photographs of the person in a park or on a rooftop, anywhere that would make a nicer headshot than the white background with a collar showing on LinkedIn. I've taken portraits of bestselling authors, entrepreneurs who sold their company for hundreds of millions and of top-tier VCs investors who invest in unicorns. Once the picture retouched and sent to their inbox, it's the start of a completely different relationship. It is not a transactional vibe; just snapping photos and talking in a scenic location reveals our full humanity and the values we bring with us to a potential partnership. Though it can feel strange at first, once you see the value of thinking outside the box for networking activities, it becomes easy, second nature even. I fear I can't say the same about playing ice breaker games.