It’s October and I’m getting ready to go to the annual Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Conference. In the past, I have focused on learning from the bewildering number of educational sessions covering every topic from recycling to leadership development, but this year, I will be going primarily for networking. As a collaborator of Earth Deeds, a social venture focused on supporting local solutions to global warming, my job is to promote a specific solution for sustainability in higher ed: help people measure their carbon footprint and account for it through carbon onsetting.
Problem is, most people don’t understand what carbon offsets are, much less onsets. In the sustainability field, a lot of what we do is trying to convince people who are skeptical or too busy that they should get on board with our proposals. But having done it a few times, made mistakes, and watched others do it, I learned some practices that dramatically improve the chances of successful networking. These practices also work for talking to people that you need to work with.
1. Set up meetings in advance. At a conference with thousands of people, we can’t expect to get to know who we need to talk to at the conference. Probably 90% of the people are not useful connections (even though they might be very nice people to get to know), so we needed to research ahead of time and find the 10% that would be helpful to connect with. For the AASHE conference, Daniel and I went through the list of presenters and contacted those whose sessions we thought were relevant to our enterprise. We also went through the ACUPCC reporting directory and found institutions that seemed the best fit for what we had to offer, and we sent over 100 introduction emails in the week prior to the conference. The result is that we will arrive at the conference with people ready to talk to us.
2. Identify commonalities. When meeting someone new, begin with some friendly conversation to get to know the other person. Try to identify what you have in common. Did you use to have a similar job? Did you also go to a liberal arts college? Did you also live in the Northwest at one point? Ask them how they got to where they are. Since you are working in the same field, you probably have similar motivations and experiences. Compliment them on the amazing work that they are doing!
3. Tell your story. I tend to be a rather shy person who would rather let other people do the talking, but I’ve learned that people can’t like you if they don’t know anything about you. So share not just what you do, but how to got to where you are and why you do what you do. It’s good to be personal! And don’t worry about taking a little more time. If you can tell a story, people will listen.
4. Identify their problems. So now you get to the business part of your conversation. It may start when the other person asks you “What do you do?” I could say that we provide an online platform for people to measure and account for their carbon footprint, but that doesn’t answer the unspoken question, “What’s important about this that I should continue to speak to you?” Identify the problem that you think they have and that you provide a solution for. “A lot of institutions are committed to the goal of climate neutrality, however, out of the 600+ institutions that have signed the ACUPCC climate neutrality agreement, only five are actually neutral. The rest are not there because they don’t like the idea of buying carbon offsets. Is your school committed to climate neutrality? What are your challenges for getting there?” Engage them in a conversation about the problem that you are both trying to solve and that will likely make them more receptive to your proposal.
5. Present yourself as a solution to their problems. My ideal prospects are those who want climate neutrality but don’t want to buy carbon offsets because they don’t trust the voluntary carbon market. Once I discover this, I offer our solution, carbon onsetting. Emphasize the benefits this has for them. Does it help them reach their goals? Does it make their work easier? Does it solve a problem they have?
6. Appeal to people’s intrinsic values. People may not completely understand or agree with your method, but they are likely to agree with the intrinsic values behind it. Intrinsic values are those that do not have external benefits but appeal to people’s sense of compassion, fairness, and desire for happiness. In my case we tell them that we can’t wait for governments to take action on climate change, we can take transformative action when we act together. We tell them that climate neutrality is limited, and that we need to do much more than take care of our own carbon footprint. We tell them that carbon mitigation is only one solution, and that we also need do adaptation and resilience, preserve biodiversity, build sustainable food systems, and change the patterns of thinking that created the problems. We tell them that they can do all these things through carbon onsetting. When we appeal to people’s higher values, we find that their eyes light up and they nod enthusiastically in agreement.
7. Be clear about how they can take advantage of your offering. If the other person is interested in your offer, tell them how exactly to take advantage of your offer. How would your offering work with what they have? How would it be implemented? Who is it that they need to talk to get buy-in? What are the next steps for the both of you to move this forward?
8. Provide resources. Give them all the resources they need in order to make their decision. Give them information they can use to educate their stakeholders about your offering. Make those resources engaging with visual, audio and video. In addition, think about what else might be helpful to them. Maybe you don’t have the resources to help them with their problem but you know someone who does. Recommend a book that would be helpful to them. Don’t make it all about self-promotion, but genuinely try to help the other person regardless of how it may benefit you.
9. Make friends first. No one likes someone who is only interested in them for their own benefit, so above all, be interested in becoming their friend. Be a valuable contact even if they don’t need what you are offering. If you can’t help them in any way, you can still be a compassionate listener. Learn from them and appreciate them for what they do. Stay in touch because they might think of someone who could help you, or you might think of something that could help them in the future.
10. Follow up. Soon after your meeting, send them a warm email thanking them for their time, send them any resources and referrals that you agreed to provide, and tell them again how they can take advantage of your offer.
None of us can do what we do by ourselves. With the attitude of making friends, learning, and giving generously, we can all help each other towards our goals.
Do you have suggestions for networking? Please share them in the comment field below.