Photograph by Ezra Bailey via Getty Images
By Tom Schryver
April 6, 2016

The Entrepreneur Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in America’s startup scene contribute answers to timely questions about entrepreneurship and careers. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the best way to make fruitful connections?” is written by Tom Schryver, executive director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.

It’s the introverts’ bane: “You should network more.” We know that the breadth and depth of personal networks is correlated to entrepreneurial success, but it’s insufficient to simply say, “Go hand out more business cards.” What’s a shy entrepreneur to do?

The first key is to understand that the connection needs to be fruitful. It needs to yield something. These are the connections that introduce you to a great new hire, a new client, or point out that great office space that’s about to become available. How do you make these kinds of connections?

It’s something social scientists and economists have known for a long time: There’s value in diversification. As we know from finance, diversification reduces risk, and as such, is as close as you can get to a free lunch in investing. Similarly, social scientists know that what matters most about one’s network is less about a few strong relationships than having a large number of weaker ties with a more diverse group.

This is the thrust of Stanford Professor Mark Granovetter’s seminal paper, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Granovetter found that the job-seekers he studied got more successful leads through acquaintances rather than close friends. The reason for this is diversification—people who travel in the same circles are less likely to have new, useful information than those who are more different.

See also: The Best Way to Network

Recognizing this, how can you create and leverage a diverse personal network? Here are a few practical tips:

Allow yourself to be known
If people don’t know who you are or what you’re about, they won’t know to deliver help when it’s needed. Yes, this means that you should attend that networking event, but it also means keeping your LinkedIn profile up to date and having an accurate and live website and social media presence. It also means having business cards—nothing beats a well-formatted card to jog the memory of that person you chatted with at the bar.

Help, then look to be helped
Humans are pro-social and tend toward collaboration and helpfulness. That said, people are much more likely to extend themselves on behalf of people who have shown a willingness to help them in return. Pay it forward—but pay it first, if possible. A great one-two punch at networking events is, “What are you working on?” and, “What can I do to help?”

 

Have an ask—and don’t be afraid to make it
Hopefully, you’ll be lucky enough to be asked, “What can I do to help?” When opportunity knocks, you should have an answer ready to go. A good ask has a few characteristics. First, it should be quick to deliver and easy to understand. Overly complicated lead-ins erode goodwill and introduce skepticism about whether you know what you need. Second, it should be something the person can discharge quickly, like an on-the-spot email exchange. Last, and most important, it should add value to you, if successful. Not only is this what you’re looking for—a fruitful connection—but people who are motivated to engage will do so out of a genuine desire to help. This means you need to give them something they can do that actually helps you.

Follow up to say thank you
The feeling that comes from helping someone is contagious, and it strengthens the bond between the helper and the helped. Letting the helper know that you apreciated his or her service—even if small—is a rare but important gesture. Even better is when the help made a difference: Letting the helper know he provided genuine assistance that had an impact is a deposit in his psychic bank, and will make him far more likely to proactively reach out with unsolicited ideas or assistance in the future.

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