Thom Singer Re-Thinks Networking in a Socially-Distanced World
Thom Singer is a keynote speaker and executive search consultant. Based in Austin, he has spent 15 years as a speaker showing people how to connect better in a gadget-crazed world.
Singer coined the term “Social Tightening While Social Distancing” to help individuals and companies find efficient and meaningful ways to connect during the uncertain times of 2020. He lives by the philosophy that all opportunities come from people, and has made connecting others his life-long mission.
He is also the man behind the “Making Waves at C-Level” podcast (formerly the “Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do” podcast), which began in 2014 and has included interviews with nearly 600 business leaders and others who are making waves in their careers.
Having studied and taught the secrets to successful networking. Singer says the key to remembering the names of people you meet is active follow-up. To this end, he finds that writing an email (or a handwritten note) within three days of making a new contact dramatically improves his memory and recollection skills.
For more than a decade, you have crafted a career by speaking and teaching networking at conferences and conventions. What has the last four months been like for you?
In the first week of March, I watched my entire calendar of work (speaking at conferences or company meetings and / or serving as the master of ceremonies for these events) evaporate. The second quarter of 2020 was poised to be my best quarter in 11 years working in the speaking business. It all vanished as the global pandemic arrived. And as time progressed the rest of the year also saw almost all the events be canceled or postponed. While many things have gone virtual moving forward, clients are not willing to pay the same amounts for speakers and there are simply less opportunities for the type of work I have done. Because of this I had to make two major pivots. Fortunately I already had experience doing virtual speeches and hosting hybrid events, but there is not much of that kind of work (contrary to what people think). I wrote a new talk called “Social Tightening While Social Distancing” and have had some success presenting this to companies who do not want their competition to get a leg up on the relationship side of business. Additionally, I joined the executive search firm of Stanton Chase as a search consultant. This move was something that had been in discussion in the past. I spoke at their international partners meeting four years ago and at that time they saw a synergy between my skill set and their team. It is a perfect match, an business that excites me, and I can continue to speak.
Do the networking skills that you teach for real-life events translate to networking the virtual world?
It is the same and it is different. The problem is that there is a lot of media attention put on Zoom and other virtual platforms as a “replacement” for face to face meetings. The reality is that while these tools are okay (and better than nothing)…. they do not match the power of being in the room and sharing live experiences. Networking is not likes, links, shares, and follows. It is about establishing long-term and mutually beneficial relationships that lead all parties involved to discover more opportunities. This is like online dating. A good way to meet, but few would ever marry anyone they only chatted with via an app. Networking is not seeing someone in a Video chat with dozens of others. It is about the one-to-one connecting. In the real world I taught people that the networking did not happen at the networking event, it happened in the follow up over many months after meeting someone. What I am seeing is much less real follow up from virtual meetings. Plus, people are getting sick of staring at video all day. Even introverts are telling me they long to leave their houses and see other humans.
Have any of the platforms for virtual conferences / virtual events mastered networking functionality?
The problem with networking in virtual events is not that the platform has not mastered the functionality, it is that the people still do not understand how to engage, meet, cultivate, and create real connections using the tools that exist. We have to remember that live networking events as we knew them before March 2020 had existed for decades. And while not perfect in delivering real human engagement…. everyone knew what they were getting attending a local networking lunch, an trade association event, or a giant conference experience like SXSW. Now nobody knows what to say or do, and they do very little to follow up. We have a long way to go to make virtual networking something that is beneficial to most people. I hear a lot of people say “that virtual event was nice under the circumstances (of social distancing and pandemic)”…but when pressed about the real impact, they seem to be unable to say if they liked it or not. We have a long way to go in this area.
Do you think the virtual networking skills that people are now learning for virtual interactions will make in-person networking events less relevant in the post-COVID future?
As soon as COVID has played out or a vaccine is created, live events will come back with gusto. It should not happen until people can be safe, but that day will come (every pandemic of the last 200 years eventually ended). Humans are social creatures and many are hungry to get back to real life. But for now we have to do these virtual meetings. Many are saying it will end live meetings … but the most vocal are companies who have a horse in the race. When those in Microsoft claim it is forever going to see virtual as the answer, we must remember they have a product in that space (Microsoft Teams). Seems like all the social and mobile and virtual companies talk about staying virtual long after COVID, but maybe that is because such a reality would help them sell products and service. I think in person networking will be back. Those who say it wont, will jump in to in person events again if they discover their competitors are kicking butt by being in the human to human connection world. People will go to what works for their companies, careers, social lives, etc…. I am a believer in face to face human interaction and do not see two years of a virus changing thousands of years of how people connect. As I mentioned before, online dating is a great tool… but I do not see many people getting married without the live in person part of the relationship.
I do think that “hybrid events” are here to stay. While many (most??) people will want to return to face to face once it is safe, some will not. Travel is expensive. Some have mobility issues or health concerns that make staying home their best option, so meeting planners will have to adapt. I began working with hybrid events six years ago and co-founded a thing called “The Conference Talk Show” to help host the virtual broadcast. Here is the thing, a virtual broadcast of an event cannot just be a live stream of the main stage. The at home / remote audience has different expectations than the onsite audience. This means meeting planners have to mix up the agenda to please both groups. It might be like planning two events in some way, but to be successful they will need to have an amazing in person event and an online option that is more than just streams of speakers. This will take a re-thinking of what events mean and allowing the virtual component to be a major part of the planning. But if given a choice, most people will pick the in person parts that cannot be replicated in a virtual setting.
When do you think conferences and conventions and other larger in-person networking events will return?
This is hard to guess, but not soon. I have a daughter who was supposed to get married on May 16, 2020. She rescheduled of October 10, 2020. In mid July she decided that October had been over optimistic and she and her fiancé decided to wait until they could have a wedding and reception without masks and fear of anyone getting sick. Realistically this probably means late 2021 or 2022. Live meetings in business and associations with large crowds will be the same. I do not expect to see a robust calendar of in person speaking opportunities until 2022. I work as a speaker or master of ceremonies at about 40–50 events a year. Sometimes multiple in a week, but seems like weekly I am on a plane. I have not seen an airport for business or pleasure since March, and do not think there will be any business flights for the rest of 2020. But I would go if invited to speak anywhere. I just do not see many in person events of the size where I am usually hired to present. But smaller in-company events with less than 100 people (regional sales meetings, etc…) could be back sooner.
A decade or so ago, I remember you telling me that you wouldn’t add someone to your LinkedIn contacts if you hadn’t some kind of personal, face-to-face interaction. Do you still adhere to that rule?
I used to be adamant about “the coffee, meal or beer rule” which meant I would only link to people on LinkedIn and Facebook who I had actually met and talked with in a meaningful way (Twitter, Instagram and other platforms were different). I still follow that, with some exceptions. If I see a real reason (like a meeting planner asking to connect, someone from a speakers bureau, or now someone connected to my role in executive search), then I will accept the invite. But I rarely send a request unless I have have a real chance to cross paths. Why? Because social media does not magically make you a friend. A like, link, share or follow means little unless both parties are committed to engage and grow a relationship. The problem with giant lists of people you do not know is it clutters your feed with strangers talking about their stuff…and you don’t know nor care about most of them. The original meaning of social media was that you were to be “Social”…. now people use these tools as marketing push tools to blather about self. Without a real connection and knowing each other there is little value in the tool. Unless you are a real celebrity or an “influencer”…but I hate that term.
Between COVID and the George Floyd murder, the US has seen incredible turmoil over the last four months. What has been your silver lining during this very difficult time period?
Humans seem to get stronger and make strides following difficult times. Plus, having a big goal leads to accomplishments. Look at the space race of the 1960s….it birthed much research that lead to the computer age. I think that with the huge amount of research being done to find cures for COVID that there will be medical discoveries that were not intended. I am hopeful that we will make other strides that are long overdue in society in so many areas.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world.