Handshake

Today, I’m an election judge for the Maryland primary. Sure, you can say that I’m doing it because of my personal politics, but there is an added payoff: I’m going to meet hundreds of people that I’ve never seen before.

I work from home, so it can be hard for me to find ways to interact with real, live people — but I’d argue that many those of you with a commute have the same issue: outside of those people that you see every day, how often do you connect with anyone new? Online buddies don’t count, either. As valuable as an online connection may be, face-to-face conversations can be the fastest way to build a real relationship, whether you’re trying to sell something or get a date.

We get out of the habit of talking to new people fairly quickly, but it’s an important skill. New people bring innovation and possibilities to your attention. Even beyond the necessity of networking in order to help your career, making new friends can help keep you from stagnating, from sinking into the same routine day in and day out. There are a few actions you can take to improve your relationship-building skills.

  1. Go to where the people are! Volunteer for a big event, attend a conference or join a club. While it’s possible to meet people hanging around the local coffee shop, it can be harder — your prospective contact may not be interested in interacting with anyone except the barista. However, at events and club activities, people show up ready to talk.
  2. Make eye contact. I ‘borrowed’ this technique from one of the Comfort Challenges in Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Workweek”: Ferriss suggests spending two days when you make eye contact with people you encounter, from those you already know to those you see on the street. Beyond becoming comfortable with new people, this activity gives you an opportunity to make conversation, even if it starts out on the “What are you looking at?” level.
  3. Prepare an elevator speech. An elevator speech is a 30 second pitch, a description of your project, which I know sounds like more of a marketing skill than a relationship-builder. But being able to boil down who you are and what you do can jumpstart a conversation — especially if your pitch piques interest. Some people rely on elevator speeches that showcase what they can do for their new contacts, while others rely on pitches that demonstrate what a contact can do for them. Either way, it’s worth thinking about why you want to make new contacts, and including that information in your elevator pitch.
  4. Don’t limit your options. I know most of my fellow election judges are much older than me (60 seems to be the average age, even with me bringing it down), which isn’t the age group I have the most in common with. Just because I don’t have much in common with them, however, doesn’t mean that I should ignore them. Personally, I think it means I should talk to them more — I can learn more from someone with very different experiences.
  5. Carry business cards, or some other method of providing your contact information. Business cards aren’t necessary, but they do make life easier, especially if you want to give other people an easy method of staying in touch. Even a simple card with just your name, phone number and email address is worthwhile — your goal may not be to make connections for your employer, so using their cards could be less than ideal.
  6. Avoid wasting time. I know that I hate people that drone on and on about something I have no interest in. I feel like they’re wasting my time. I try to avoid doing it to anyone else, either. Instead, I make a point of holding a conversation — you know, that thing where all parties get a chance to talk — with a topic that is (hopefully) interesting to everyone concerned. A further caveat: I also always try to be genuine. It isn’t too hard to tell if someone isn’t and that can feel like just as much of a waste of time as a droner.
  7. Write down details. I forget names, dates and details regularly, so I make an effort to write things down. I find business cards are great for this sort of thing: if I have a person’s business card, I write on the back when and where I met them and why, along with relevant details. I also add this sort of information to the ‘notes’ field that most electronic address books offer.
  8. Follow up on your new connections. If you get a business card, a phone number or even a website, make a point of following up. Without any sort of follow up, that great connection that you just made will never see you again, which doesn’t make for a very effective relationship. And, if you said you were going to do something (pass along a name to a friend, email a link, etc.), just do it!
  9. Don’t stress. It’s okay if a few fishies get away. You don’t absolutely have to make every contact possible, and you certainly don’t have to maintain ongoing relationships with every person you meet. It’s not worth worrying about. Instead, try to focus on making the most of a small number of contacts, Even one new connection can be worthwhile, if you’re willing to devote some time to furthering the relationship.

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