Why Freelance Writers Should Separate Networking from Selling

What I’m listening to: Heathens by twenty one pilots


It’s been a relatively slow week. I’m dealing with three projects at the moment, but there’s time between interviews and calls to get some much-needed admin work out of the way.

There was also time on my agenda to schedule a meetup with a contact who wanted to talk over coffee. That didn’t happen. Normally, when a situation goes weird, I don’t talk about it online. However, in this case it’s a teaching moment (and a learning one for all of us).

It’s a lesson in how networking shouldn’t be done.

The contact got in touch a few weeks back asking to meet for coffee. I love these informal meetings because you can get to know the person, talk about things other than work, and make a connection that may sometime in the future be useful to both of you.

For that reason, I agreed to coffee (which I don’t drink), and emailed some days and times. I’ll admit right here I’ve been reluctant to meet with this contact because the notes always feel like they’re bordering on a sales pitch (unspoken, but a colleague said the same thing).

The response I received made me pause: here’s my office address. My admin will confirm the appointment.

Okay, so it’s not really an informal meeting. Or is it? I’m confused.

As well I should be. This is not how one should network. Here’s why this particular meeting never happened:

  • It feels way too much like I’m about to be pitched products or services
  • Meeting in that office with that contact sitting at a desk puts me on inferior footing
  • It’s not on neutral ground and no longer feels like a “Let’s meet” invitation
  • When I suggested an alternative location, the response was a little curt and just slightly condescending – not overtly, but the implication was the contact needed to “explain” how busy they are (never mind how busy I am, but I’m perceived to have time to go running to someone’s office)

I had expected a sales pitch when I did show up (and I had a response ready that would have shut it down immediately), but I didn’t expect the meeting to be on this contact’s turf entirely. That, my friends, is lousy networking. Hell, it’s not networking at all. It’s a power move. It’s also off-putting, which is why we won’t be meeting.

Would you accept a “networking” situation like that? Probably not. So why do you sell to your contacts the moment you get in touch?

It could be that this contact had pure intentions. However, I’ll never know because the conversation left a bad taste. Maybe the contact is just lousy at email conversation or maybe this person really is that busy. Too bad for the contact — the approach, however well-intentioned, caused me to back off.

Too many people simply don’t understand effective networking. Here’s a better way to build a strong network:

Meet on neutral ground. In most cases, your networking is going to happen either online, in email, or in person at an event or function. It won’t — shouldn’t — happen in someone’s office with one person looking across a desk at you. Neutral ground puts you both on even footing. Meeting on another person’s turf, even if there’s no desk between you, shifts power subtly, yet clearly. Don’t agree to it, and don’t expect it of others.

Go to listen. It’s a huge mistake to show up at any networking situation (online included) with the goal of making people notice you for who you are and what you do. Instead, ask questions and listen to the answers. Ask follow-up questions. Get used to speaking less.

Engage in conversation. Leave the sales pitch at home. Seriously. No one wants to be trapped in a conversation that’s clearly one-sided. You’re not there to sell. You’re there to get to know someone. Let the conversation take its own shape — don’t try to steer it toward any rehearsed or preconceived direction.

Have your elevator pitch ready. And please, keep it brief. Usually, I’ll let people tell me about themselves and their businesses before I open my mouth. If they don’t ask, I don’t offer. But if they do, I use a little summary that goes something like this: “Well, I’m a writer who specializes in your industry, and I’ve handled projects for a number of companies, including quite a few in this room. I write articles, but I handle a lot of marketing and communications pieces, too.” That’s it. I’ve worded it so they’ll ask follow-up questions if they’re interested, such as “What kind of marketing pieces?” or “Do you write for the web, too?” Occasionally, I’ll add a little about how long I’ve been specializing, or what magazines they can find my work in.

Have no expectations. Sure, there’s a chance someone will hire you on the spot, but that shouldn’t be your reason for networking. Stop thinking about your own agenda and start building relationships. Over time, the relationships will last much, much longer.

Follow up. Even in the follow up, you’re not selling. You’re thanking them for their time, and possibly repeating back a bit of the conversation to refresh their memories. Networking is all about nurturing the relationship. If you start selling, you lose them.


Writers, how has the networking attempts of others impacted you?

What’s the best/worst you’ve seen?

How do you approach networking opportunities? What works best for you?


About the author




  • Cathy Miller September 22, 2016 at 10:18 am

    That my admin will confirm the appointment really burns me. I bet he guns his car engine when driving down the street. I’m so impressed. 😉

    • lwidmer September 22, 2016 at 10:27 am

      ROFL! Cathy, that’s so funny!

      It was that among other things that put me off. I don’t think meeting for coffee should ever be in someone’s office. That’s not impromptu — that’s planned too well. I think I was most put off, however, with the follow-up assumption that I had to be explained to as to why this person is busy and can’t meet elsewhere. A) I’m busy, too — damn busy. B) There’s no way anyone works through lunch every day. C) It rang false, which means already there’s an untruth between us.

      No thanks.

  • Paula Hendrickson September 22, 2016 at 11:23 am

    I had to share this one on LinkedIn. Maybe it will knock some sense into a few people over there who equate networking with sales.

    Your tips remind me of a recurring line in Hamilton: “Talk less. Smile more.”

    The guy sounds like a patronizing buffoon. And Cathy’s right. He probably guns his car. He’d probably talk way too loud at a restaurant anyway, hoping others will overhear how busy he is. (Maybe he has to meet in his office because he’s been banned from all local eateries for boorish behavior?)

    • lwidmer September 22, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      LOL Well, I wouldn’t quite label this contact with all that, Paula. I’ve not met the person, so I can’t say. I can only say the approach is too off-putting for me to get to know this person.

      The patronizing was a bit surprising. Again, could it be this person doesn’t know how their words translate in email? Not sure. Another gray area. Those gray areas do add up, though, don’t they?

  • Michael LaRocca October 15, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Networking is a way to learn how to help the other person. It may or may not involve your services, and chances are strong that it will not. You are building a mental Rolodex of service providers you know. If someone needs a ——-, you want to be able to know someone who provides that very thing. That’s networking. If the best way to fill in that blank happens to be you one day, great. If not, that’s also great. It all works out in the end.

    • lwidmer October 17, 2016 at 9:03 am

      Exactly that, Michael! Too often, these networking meetings are people exchanging business cards and one of them going off on a tangent about how great they are and all about how they’re about to help the person in front of them. Your point is spot on — it’s about being the medium between one person and another, but also it’s about getting to know someone without thinking about how they’ll hire you. In my own business, I’ve befriended tons of people in the industry I serve, and only rarely does one of them hire me. That’s fine. Instead, they serve as subject matter experts or as people to hang out with at conferences.