Networking events and positions of strength

This replicates some of the stuff I wrote in a recent blog post, but I put this on LinkedIn and wanted a copy here for posterity 

Having moved my consulting business to London earlier this year, I’ve had a problem with marketing. The basic problem is that while my network and brand is fairly strong in India, I’ve had to start from scratch in the UK.

The lack of branding has meant that I have often had to talk or negotiate from a position of weakness (check out my recent blog post on branding as creating a position of strength). The lack of network has meant that I try to go to networking events where I can meet people and try to improve my network. Except that the lack of branding means that I have to network from a position of weakness and hence not make an impact.

A few months back I came across this set of tweets by AngelList founder Naval Ravikant, in which he talked about productivity hacks.

One that caught my eye, which I try to practice but have not always been able to practice, is on not going to conferences if you are not speaking. However, now that I think about it from the point of view of branding and positions of strength, what he says makes total sense.

In conferences and networking events, there is usually a sort of unspoken hierarchy, where speakers are generally “superior” to those in the audience. This flows from the assumption that the audience has come to gather pearls of wisdom from the speakers. And this has an impact on the networking around the event – if you are speaking, people will start with the prior of your being a superior being, compared to you going as an audience member (especially if it is a paid event).

This is not a strict rule – when there are other people at the event who you know, it is possible that their introductions can elevate you even if you are not speaking. However, if you are at an event where you don’t know anyone else, you surely start on higher ground (no pun intended) in case you are speaking.

There is another advantage that speaking offers – you can use your speech itself to build your brand, which will be fresh in your counterparties’s minds in the networking immediately afterward. Audience members have no such brand-building ability, apart from the possibility of tarnishing their own brands through inappropriate or rambling questions.

So unless you see value in what the speaker(s) say, don’t go to conferences. Putting it another way, don’t go to conferences for networking alone, unless you are speaking. Extending this, don’t go to networking events unless you either know some of the other people who are coming there (whose links you can then tap) or if there is an opportunity for you to elevate your brand at the event (by speaking, for example).

PS: Some of Naval’s other points such as having “meeting days” and scheduling meetings for later in the day are pertinent as well, and I’ve found them to be incredibly useful.

Not-working events – IIMB alumni edition

So yet another event that was supposedly for networking purposes turned out to be so badly designed that little networking was possible. The culprit in this case was the IIM Bangalore Alumni Association which organised the London edition of Anusmaran, the annual meet-up of IIMB Alumni which is held in different cities across the world.

Now, I must mention that I had been warned. Several friends from IIMB who have lived in London for a while told me that they had stopped going to this event since the events were generally badly organised. I myself hadn’t gone to one of these events since 2006 (when I’d just graduated, and found a lot of just-graduated classmates at the Mumbai edition).

So while I didn’t have particularly high expectations, I went with the hope that it “couldn’t be that bad”, and that I might get to meet some interesting people there. At the end of the event, I wasn’t sure if anyone interesting attended, because the format didn’t allow me to discover the other attendees.

Soon after I entered, and chatted briefly with the two professors there, and one guy from the batch before mine, one of the organisers requested everyone present to “form a huddle”. And then the talks started.

For some reason, the IIMB Alumni Association seems to have suddenly started to take itself too seriously in the last few years. The last few editions of the Bangalore edition of Anusmaran, for example, have featured panel discussions, and that has been a major reason for my not attending. The idea of an alumni event, after all, is to meet other alumni, and when most of you are forced to turn in one direction and listen to a small number of people, little networking can happen.

And that is exactly what happened at the London event today – the talks started, unannounced (there had been no prior communication that such talks would be there – I’d assumed it would be like the 2005 event in London that I’d helped organise where people just got together and talked). Some two or three alumni spoke, mostly to promote their businesses. And they were long talks, full of the kind of gyaan and globe that people with long careers in management can be expected to give.

So it went on, for an hour and half, with people speaking one after other and everyone else being expected to listen to the person speaking, rather than talk to one another. The class participation reminded me of the worst of the class participation from my business school days – people trying to sound self-important and noble rather than asking “real” questions.

When the organiser asked everyone to introduce themselves in a “few seconds each” (name, graduating batch, company), most people elected to give speeches. I exited soon after.

Based on the last data point (of people giving long speeches while introducing themselves), it is possible that even if I had the opportunity to network I may not have met too many interesting people. Yet, the format of the event, with lots of speeches by people mainly trying to promote themselves, was rather jarring.

This is not the first time I’ve attended a networking event where little networking is possible. I remember this “get together” organised by a distant relative a few years back where everyone was expected to listen to the music they’d arranged for rather than talking. There was this public policy conference some years ago which got together plenty of interesting people, but gave such short tea breaks that people could hardly meet each other (and organisers ushering people who overstayed their tea breaks into the sessions didn’t help matters).

Sometimes it might be necessary to have an anchor, to give people a reason apart from networking to attend the event. But when the anchor ends up being the entirety of the event, the event is unlikely to serve its purpose.

I’d written about Anusmaran once before. Thankfully the organisers of today’s event had got the pricing bit right – the event was at a pub, and you had to get your own drinks from the bar, and pay for them.

I’d also written about the importance of giving an opportunity for networking at random events.

 

Idea types and person-event types

Last night GP, the wife and I were drinking at Brewsky, a nice microbrewery in JP Nagar, Bangalore. We were seated at the bar, and were checking out some other people who were seated elsewhere at the bar. The wife pointed to two of them and independently asked GP and me to assess which of them was potentially more interesting (the independence was achieved thanks to a timely bio break I took). Most of GP and my assessment of these people tallied, but then GP popped up with this really interesting funda that I have to blog about!

So GP said “the woman sitting across from us looks more of the ‘ideas type’ while the woman seated to the right looks more of the ‘events and people type’ “. And in that one stroke, he had introduced this rather profound method of classifying people. He had created one other dimension of putting people into two categories (and in that instant doubling the number of two by twos along which people can be plotted!). And he had brought back to memory something I had seen in Bishop Cotton’s Boys’ School back in 1996.

The board near the administrative building at Cotton’s said “great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people”. Profound in itself but a three-way classification. Now, three way classifications are not as intuitive as two-way classifications. People generally prefer the latter. And in one shot last evening, GP had reduced this cumbersome three-way classification into a rather interesting two-way classification! To use the Cotton’s framework, he had clubbed the average and small minds!

In the past I’ve blogged about the concept of “who else have you been in touch with“. This is a phrase that pops up, I’ve argued, when you have met after a long time and have nothing else to talk about. A related concept is perhaps “what movie did you see recently?” (though that can occasionally lead to fairly profound discussion on ideas). Now, analysing life from GP’s framework, you will notice that when one of the persons involved in the conversation is an events-people types, it is but obvious that the conversation will quickly devolve to discussing people or events, and the best anchor for devolving into such is to seek stories of common acquaintances!

So are you an “ideas types” or an “events-person types”? Would you think such a classification is context-sensitive (depending on who you are talking to) or context free? Would you get offended if someone were to classify you as a “events-persons types”? What happens when an I-types meets and EP-types – what do they talk about? Is is even possible to talk ideas with EP-types? And what are the odds that a largish group can sustain I-types conversation?

I’ll end this post with an anecdote. Not so long ago I met a few old friends. It was a largish group, and the entire contents of the two-hours-or-so conversation can be classified into two types – discussions on mutual friends and acquaintances and “who else you are in touch with” (standard EP-type stuff), and discussion of concepts discussed on one of my blogs! Maybe I should take credit for pulling conversation in that group to I-type stuff!

 

Guarantees in meetings

There are some events/meetings which involve strong network effects. People want to attend such events if and only if a certain number of other people are going to attend it. But then they don’t know before hand as to who else is coming, and hence are not sure whether to accept the invitation. These are events such as school reunions, for example, where if only a few people come, there isn’t much value. And it’s hard to coordinate.

In such events it’s always useful to provide a guarantee. For example, a friend from (B) school was in town last week and expressed an interest in meeting other batchmates in Bangalore. A mail thread was promptly started but until the morning of the event, people remained mostly noncommittal. Not many of us knew this guy particularly well, though he is generally well-liked. So none of us really wanted to land up and be among only one or two people along with this guy.

And then there was a guarantee. One other guy sent a mail saying he’d booked a table at a bar, and this sent a strong signal that this guy was going to be there too. Then there were a couple of other very positive replies and the guarantee having been set, some seven or eight people turned up and the meeting can be called a “success”.

Sometimes when you’re trying to organise an event, it makes sense to get unconditional attendance guarantees from a couple of people before you send out the invite to the wider world. So you tell people that “X and Y” (the early guarantors) are definitely coming, and that will pull in more people, and that can be the trigger in making the event a success! In certain circles, X and Y need to be celebrities. In smaller circles, they can be common men (or women), but people whose guarantees of attendance are generally trusted (i.e. people who don’t have a history of standing up people)!

Another small reunion of my B-school batch happened last month and in the run-up to that I realised another thing about RSVPs – yeses should be public and noes private. One guy took initiative and mailed a bunch of us proposing we meet. I hit reply all on purpose to say that it was a great idea and confirm my attendance. Soon there was another public reply confirming attendance and this snowballed to give us a successful event. There were a few invitees we didn’t hear from, who didn’t attend, and I assume they had replied privately to the invite in the negative.

The problem with events on Facebook is that your RSVP is public irrespective of your reply – so even if you say no, everyone knows you’ve said “no”. And so you think it’s rude to say “no”, and say “yes” just out of politeness, even though you have no intentions of attending.

I’ve attended a few events where the hosts estimated attendance based on a Facebook invite and grossly overestimated attendance – too many people had hit “yes” out of sheer politeness.

So the ideal protocol should be “public yes, private no”. Facebook should consider giving this as an option to event creators so that people reveal their true preferences in the RSVP rather than saying “yes” out of sheer politeness.

In that sense it’s like a Vickery auction whose basic design principle is that people reveal their true willingness to pay and not underbid to avoid the winner’s curse!