People Are More Impressed With Who You Are Than What You Do

We’ve all been asked that dreaded question at a networking event.

“So… what do you do?”

I drive myself insane wondering why people lead with that question in social situations. My guess is they are just nervous and it’s the first and easiest thing that comes to mind and then out of their mouths.

Yet, it’s the dumbest and worst question to lead with once you shake hands with someone. It shows the other person you are about to judge them and looking for the lowest hanging fruit to make your snap judgement. So do yourself and the person in front of you a favor and don’t ask it anymore.

So what SHOULD you ask?

Anything. Except for the above question anything is fair game. Ask about their clothes. Ask about their background or where they came from. Inquire about something unrelated to the topic of the evenings event like the weather, local sports team, the coffee shop where you are sitting, a funny off-the-cuff joke about the random people you are watching. Really, anything will work here. Absolving yourself of the “what do you do” question will invariably raise you right to the top of the list of people the other person wants to converse with.

But why is this so?

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The “what do you do” question makes people feel like they are being interrogated. Especially if the person you find yourself talking with has recently made a huge life change and is in between jobs or startups. Take it from me, when in that phase of life this is the last question any of us want to answer. And the thing is you never know who has recently made that decision or is currently in that phase so better to be cautious and not take a salt shaker and dump it on someones fresh wound right out of the gate.

The “what do you do” question also makes people feel uneasy since its origins can be found in us humans trying to compare ourselves to others. Instinctively, our goal is to find someone who we feel superior to so we can make ourselves feel better, even for a brief moment. If I ask you what do you do and you tell me “I’m a lawyer” or “I just sold my startup to Google” I now know where we stand economically and socially. If you respond with a lower status job description I also know where we stand and feel better about myself.

But what about the people who ask the question only so you ask them the same question so then they can pitch you their business? Same result holds here: not a good idea to lead with your elevator pitch to a stranger that didn’t ask for it. I don’t know about you but I don’t want the first interaction with every person I meet to be a pitch session about what they are working on and how I can get involved. This is also a very shallow and quite self-serving interaction and again puts people on the defensive.

What I have found works best is to be genuinely interested in other people, and ask questions about them and what they care about. Becoming interested in others is quite easy if you don’t lead with “what do you do” questions. I try to challenge myself and get creative in how I converse with people, how much I can get them to talk about their ideas and passions. Initiating conversations without asking about profession or job shows the other person you are genuinely interested in their story and them as people, not just about professional comparisons. One or two great questions or comments unrelated to their profession can jump start a quality interaction with pretty much anyone.  I have found this is the best and quickest way to illustrate who I am and my inner character without saying a thing – outside of asking the intriguing questions.  The less I say the more I listen – and thus show who I am – resulting in a strong trusted connection with the other person.

The crazy and counter-intuitive thing about this strategy is once you start a conversation with another person not asking about their profession the other person will inevitably bring it up, but on their own terms. And since you didn’t come across as aggressive or interrogating you will find they are very engaged in the conversation and will walk away thinking you were one of the best conversationalists they have ever encountered even though they did most of the talking.

And in this way you will find each and every conversation is a way to learn something new about the world, something new about another person and a fun way to add to your wisdom of the world.

Seek first to understand, then be understood.

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How Do You Meet Other Cool and Smart People In The Startup Community?

coffeeI was at an event last night and started talking to a person who was younger and newer to the startup community.  During our conversation he asked something that slightly caught me off guard, given his current job at a fairly well known tech resource here in Seattle.

“How do I meet more cool and smart founders and engineers around Seattle?  I mean, what do you do?”

Although he is young – about a year out of college and just getting his feet wet in the professional world – I was still taken aback.  It struck me as odd that someone wouldn’t know where to go and where to look to meet other entrepreneurs.

But then I realized it might not be as obvious to others as it is to me.  I’m a bit more social than most and have had the opportunity to get tied into the Seattle startup community over the course of the last few years.

So if you find yourself asking the same question this person did, here’s a few ideas on how to meet more people doing cool stuff in your community.

Go to a lot of events

It may seem obvious but going to local startup events is one of the best ways to meet new people.  The only drawback is you have to get over the awkwardness of being around a lot of people you really don’t know and looking around to find someone to talk to.  There’s no point in taking the time and energy to go to an event and just sitting on the side by yourself waiting for someone to come talk to you.

Just bite the bullet, find someone in the crowd who is not mid sentence in another conversation, put out your hand, introduce yourself and start the conversation.  BUT remember – only stay in conversation with one person for 5 or 10 minutes before gracefully wrapping it up, grabbing a card if you want and moving on.  No one likes to be cornered by a stranger for an hour.

Go to Hackathons and specific meetups

Hackathons, by their very nature, attract smart and talented people.  If you want to find the people who are hacking away on the newest ideas, you need to start going to local hackathons.  By the end of the first night you will have found a new team to help  build something new and in the process make a handful of new friends.  

Also, seek out a few meetups that fit your interests and just show up.  There are groups meeting in your city on almost anything imaginable.   If you can’t find something that interests you – start one!

Ask your close friends for introductions

Asking the people you already know to introduce you to someone they think is smart and would be a great connection is another way to expand your network.  It’s best if you identify the person you want to meet and specify the reason for meeting them, it makes their intro a lot easier.  One thing to remember on intro’s:  The person doing the introduction is putting their reputation on the line when they introduce you – so make sure you follow through and act professional.   If not, it looks bad on you as well as the  person who connected you.

5o coffee dates

Mark Suster wrote a while back about committing to 50 coffee meetings in a year.  While extreme, the point is clear – committing to having coffee with others in your community will lead to introductions and opportunities you never would have thought were available to you.  So next time you are out at an event or meetup, simply ask the person you are talking to if they can meet for 30 minute coffee next week.  At the end of the coffee meeting, ask the person who they would recommend you meet next.  It works…

Start writing

When I started blogging and guest posting on other media outlets, it opened up another channel for people to reach out and connect with me.  In fact, that is how I founded Seconds (actually, my cofounder read an article I wrote on GeekWire and he cold emailed me to ask if we can meet for coffee – see how it works!)  Putting your thoughts and words on screen and publishing them out into the world allows others to “virtually” get to know you and how you see the world.  On your blog, make it easy for others to connect with you, via Twitter, Facebook or email.  Trust me, it does wonders for your future.

So there you have it.  Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and get noticed.  Go to events.  Put out your hand.  Say something.  Write something.  And for god sakes book some meetings!