It's easy to dread networking events.
The endless "So what do you dos?"; the stress of meeting new people; the awkward moment when neither person knows what to say; the light hors d'oeuvres when what you really want is an actual meal.
The fact is networking is still important. Really important. It accounts, for example, for people getting a full 46 percent of new jobs. To put that into perspective, the next runner-up is job boards, which account for just 25 percent of successful new employment.
Anything--and I do mean anything--that can make networking less painful and more fun is welcome in my world. And this past month, fellow Inc. columnist Chris Winfield presented a question that helps quite a bit.
Winfield, alongside Jen Gottlieb, runs a creative conference for entrepreneurs called Unfair Advantage Live, an event designed to help entrepreneurs connect with media professionals and get covered in major publications like O Magazine and The New York Times, as well as network shows like Dr. Oz, The Today Show, and more.
But Winfield and Gottlieb's approach to "traditional" networking is anything but. It's based on relationships, authenticity, and service, rather than quid pro quo and, "what can I get from you?"
That's why they advocate for using the following question to connect with people at networking events:
"So what do you need help with right now?"
The brilliance of the question is twofold. First, it's not "So what do you do?" (Right there it has set itself apart.) And second, the "right now" part takes the conversation from the more general to the specific. Right now, what's going on that you could use help with?
It can also lead to some pretty fantastic results.
For example, one entrepreneur landed a spot on Good Morning America because of it.
At one of the Unfair Advantage media mixers, career transformation coach Pat Roque met a guy named Gerald Cruz Fernando. She didn't know who he was, and he didn't know much about her either--but she decided to get to know him by asking what he could use help with right now.
"Actually," he said, "what I really need is a parent who's got a kid graduating from college who doesn't have a job yet."
"Oh," said Roque. "Well, that's me!"
It turned out Fernando was a specialty casting producer for ABC. After a brief conversation with her about the situation, he texted the producer of Good Morning America, which was doing a segment on the subject. Within a week, Roque was on Good Morning America, alongside Shark Tank's Barbara Corcoran and Robert Herjavec.
Of course, not all stories are as dramatic as that--but the point is that they can be. And it's a lot more interesting to discuss than how long someone has been a tax attorney.
Most people at networking events want to connect. They don't want to endlessly recite their job title and ask you about yours. But a lot of us don't know what else to do. We're like little networking automatons, going around asking predictable questions and then glazing over when other people answer them.
So consider shaking things up. Ask people what they need help with right now, instead of just what industry they're in.
The other great thing about the question is that it has you regularly reflect on what you need help with. More than one person is going to answer it for you and then say, "So what do you need help with?"
You'll start to reflect on what you do need, and get good at articulating it. For example, you might say: "Actually, I'm looking for more speaking opportunities. I've got a new talk about creativity I'm working on, and I want to test it out on different kinds of audiences."
They're going to ask you about your talk, or about what kinds of speaking opportunities you mean. They might even refer you to someone who's putting on a big conference next month, who could still be looking for speakers. Or someone with a big podcast who's always looking for people who can speak intelligently on creativity.
And you're going to help them with something meaningful, too.
The truth is, helping someone with something they actually need is one of the quickest ways to bond. There's an element of vulnerability inherent in revealing something you want or need. And when someone else takes it seriously, you feel more deeply seen. You feel supported.
You feel connected.
Imagine if your experience of networking was feeling seen, supported, and connected--and giving others that experience, as well.
From now on, it can be.