Some Guidelines for Upping Your Social Network Skills

The future would be a better place if we retained the timeless wisdom of appropriate human interaction

By Dennis B. McGrath
Wednesday, November 18, 2015

In today’s business world, there’s no absence of focus on improving social media knowledge and online skills. Yet there’s far less emphasis on how to increase a much more fundamental but still critical area: social networking opportunities and skills. 

Over reliance on digital communication, it can be argued, has caused our interpersonal communications habits and skills to atrophy.  Who needs to “beat the bushes” for new business opportunities and contacts when we can simply rely on our personal computers and their databases to do that time-honored job for us. Unless we’re running for an elective office there doesn’t appear to be any great urgency to personally meet prospective customers or clients. We can reach more people in less time sitting at our personal computers than by attending business or industry functions.

Yet there’s something short-sighted in that thinking. While orders do get placed online, when it comes to business relationships and agreements of most any magnitude, they still get reached, by and large, person to person. People buy from people, particularly from people they’ve come to know, trust, respect and possibly even like.

For many years, McGraw-Hill, the huge publisher of books and business magazines ran full-page ads that showed an imposing CEO type seated at his desk uttering the same negative words to a would-be salesperson: “I don’t know YOU, I don’t know your company. I don’t know its products.  Now what was it you were trying to sell me?” 

To paraphrase that consummate peddler, Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, “You gotta know the territory” — and the people you are trying to influence have to know you — personally.

When I began my career in public relations counseling, my older and better known superiors took me around to meet the key journalists and editors in the local print and broadcast media. I was, in essence, trading on the credibility and familiarity of those senior colleagues. In today’s impersonal and more pressured business world, it’s doubtful that would happen.

So what’s the alternative solution?  Quite simply, it is to take advantage of the many opportunities for social networking. Possibilities include industry associations, local Chambers of Commerce, professional groups in your field or discipline, organizations such as Women in Business, the Financial Executives Institute, business book clubs (the Minneapolis Club has a breakfast book club every month that’s open to non-members), Club E (for entrepreneurs — with chapters in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth), community, fraternal and commercial groups, charitable and good government organizations. 

So what do you do if and when you do participate in one of these social gatherings?  First, always remember Woody Allen’s famous quote that “Showing Up is 80% of Success.”  Next, you might want to do an inventory of your listening skills and how they might be improved.  In this regard, might also be a good idea to ask yourself how open or tolerant you are to listening to the opinions of others who may not agree with your views.   Quite simply, how other-directed are you?

And make sure you “bring something to the party” — something of substance. That means, in part, making sure you are well informed on current events and issues, and that you have opinions to offer that are not just diatribes against government regulations, the media or current political debates that may irk you.  

Finally, never commit the cardinal sin of disparaging another person or competitor, whether they are present at the gathering or not. My father was known for his ability to make friends and win customers.  Whenever someone would make a cutting remark about a third party, Dad would always respond:  “I’m surprised to hear that, because he (she) always has spoken highly of you.” That always brought a quick shift in the conversation.

If you up your own personal social networking activity and agenda, getting out from behind your PC screen, mobile devices and desk, you might find a profitable new world of business contacts — in the flesh.


Dennis B. McGrath is a senior counselor for the Minneapolis public relations and public affairs firm Himle Rapp & Company. A founding partner of Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin (now Weber Shandwick), he has been head of communications for Gelco Corporation (now GE Credit) and Cray Research. He writes frequently on business topics.