Ahead of the Curve: Meeting New People—for Fun and Profit
How to grow your social circle this summer—and add a few business contacts as well
Southwest Florida can feel like the smallest of small towns. You see the same folks at your favorite benefits, the tennis courts, your downtown haunts. And lord knows the one time you hit the grocery store in your PJs, all of your neighbors were there, too (but, of course, appropriately dressed).
But with more than 1 million residents calling our area home (1,028,290 was the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 forecast for Lee and Collier counties combined), chances are you don’t know nearly as many people as you like to think you do. And isn’t there always that super-cool someone you wish you could call a friend? Our community is full of inspiring individuals, and growing your social network—not just the online kind—can have big benefits. Friends and colleagues help us get through tough times, network us into better jobs and make us laugh on Friday nights.
But here’s the dirty little secret of meeting people as an adult: It takes work. If you want to grow your social circle this summer, spend a little time sowing seeds in the right places. Here are 10 tips from two of Southwest Florida’s best networkers: Kena Yoke, a serial entrepreneur and business consultant, and Andy Robinson, an executive coach.
1. Get involved. The simplest suggestion for meeting new people is to find a cause you’re interested in and volunteer. But Yoke says that’s not good enough. To really make meaningful connections, you need to do more than throw on a Habitat for Humanity T-shirt and pound nails for a few hours. You need to lead. “People remember the people in leadership roles,” she says, adding, “Ask to be a speaker at an event, or take charge of a committee.” Having a bit of responsibility also ups your chances of sticking with it. When you don’t feel like showing up but know that others are counting on you, you’ll be less likely to flake. And the more you show up, the closer you’ll get to your fellow volunteers.
2. Don’t limit yourself to causes. After Robinson moved from Atlanta to Naples, he joined the local cycling club, Naples Velo. He eventually became president of the group. Today, he says, almost half of his clients are cyclists. According to Robinson, the real trick is to get involved in something you love—be that a cause, a sport, a craft or auditioning for the next community theater production. “Our time is limited, so whatever you choose should be something that you really enjoy,” he says.
3. Stop talking about yourself, already. It can be tempting to lead with that story about your grandkids—after all, they are pretty adorable. But Yoke says when meeting people for the first time, it’s better to ask them about themselves. Finding out what’s going on in their lives can help you make a meaningful connection. Yoke, for example, once met someone at a networking event whose daughter was battling a rare illness. She happened to have a friend whose child also had this illness. Immediately, she offered to connect the two. Years later they all still keep in touch.
4. Be open to friendship, even at the oddest times. One of Robinson’s longtime friends is a woman he met on an airplane. “I am usually the kind of person who avoids conversations on an airplane. But I happened to sit next to this very gregarious lady, and she became a friend. We still keep in touch, and that was 18 years ago. Really, that experience taught me that we need to be alert to the possibilities around us. We can very easily miss opportunities to connect with people.”
5. Don’t shy away from actual networking events. Yoke is a power networker—you know, the kind who actually likes networking events. But if you’re not (and most of us aren’t), you’ll get the most out of these power hours if you attack them with a plan. First, have an idea of how many people you’d like to connect with. “I’m a big fan of goal-setting, so I often instruct my clients to have a number in mind,” Robinson says. He also suggests you get there early. It can be harder to break into established conversations, but if you’re one of the first, other newcomers won’t have much choice but to chat with you. Robinson’s favorite trick, though, is to bring a friend. “I’ll know some people, they’ll know other people; we can introduce each other to people,” he says. (And if all else fails, you can always call it a night, order a round and chat with each other.)
6. Start with a compliment. Yoke always finds something about a fellow woman’s outfit to compliment. “Maybe it’s her shoes or her bracelet, but it’s a great conversation starter,” she says. This tactic is fraught with problems for men, so Robinson avoids remarking on looks and instead tries to do some recon about who will be at the party before arriving. Then he can lead off with a compliment on some aspect of a person’s work or family or some mutual hobby.
7. Be real. If you want to meet well-heeled friends, the obvious choice is to pony up for tickets to the two local wine festivals. But if you hate wine (?!), don’t bother. “People can tell if you’re faking it. I always tell people that if you hate cats, please stop volunteering at the humane society,” Yoke says. Authenticity matters in conversations, too. If you’re listening only in hopes of getting a moment to tell a story about your slightly more amazing vacation to Tuscany, your disinterest and personal agenda won’t go unnoticed.
8. Consider diversity. You probably already have a lot of friends similar to you; making friends who like the same things you do isn’t that hard. But adding more diversity to your friend group is important, too. People with different backgrounds, jobs, interests and life experiences can add richness to our lives. Try targeting an activity or group that is distinctly outside your typical “friend zone” and see what happens.
9. Be nice. Once, on a Naples Velo group bike ride, someone wasn’t following the rules of the road. As one of the group’s leaders, it was Robinson’s job to keep things safe. “I could have yelled at him,” Robinson remembers, “but instead I tried to politely tell him what I was seeing and what he needed to be doing.” It was a good choice. The new guy turned out to be a high-level executive from an upscale hotel chain. Not too long after, Robinson gained the hotel chain as a client. “You never know who someone is, so it’s best to be polite to everyone,” he says. And they could become a close friend.
10. Don’t talk politics. Or religion. Or about any other controversial topics, Robinson suggests. There’s a time and place for hashing out hard issues with friends, but it’s not when you first meet.
634: The number of friends kept by the average American in their social network, according to Pew Research Center