Forming new contacts isn’t necessarily all that hard. You go to some conferences, strike up some conversations, exchange some cards. Yes, there are smarter ways to approach this, but that’s not the focus of this page.
If you’re like many people I work with, most of those business cards and email addresses languish. In a few months, you run across one of the names in the pile from the big annual conference and you no longer have any idea who that person is.
But, especially in technology, we work in niches that are small enough that knowing a manageable group of the people gives you a reach across the entire field. I’ve long been active in the world of computer security, for example. There are dozens of niches within that field, but even in the broadest measure, there just aren’t that many people who drive the industry. If I make a wildly generous estimate of how many movers and shakers there are by assuming that half of the people who go to the largest annual conference in the field are directly shaping the industry (and that’s really overstating it), then the movers and shakers amount to fewer than eight thousand people.
How many of that eight thousand can I keep a meaningful, ongoing relationship with? Currently, about one thousand. These are CEO’s, program managers, software development leads, government officials, luminaries, teachers, and so on. Generally speaking, I’m in touch with all of these people at least four times a year.
I’m disciplined about it. I spend about one hour each week (two half-hour sessions) keeping on top of the process (obviously, there are times, primarily when attending conferences, that I am far more intensely engaged in catching up with folks).
This page is where I show you how to go about it. As the title suggests, my approach involves having three lists. Over time, there have actually turned out to be four lists, but one is a subset of the main three lists, so let's call it three for simplicity's sake.
As you've already figured out, I'm a little bit methodical about how I go about keeping touch with folks. But I try very hard not to be mechanical about it. I don't generally stay in touch with people I don't like, and I therefore really do want to stay in touch with the people on this list. So I don't send form-letter emails, don't call when I don't have a reason to, and don't view my desire to stay in touch as an excuse to waste someone else's valuable time. There is no point in doing stuff that makes it look like you're just checking someone off a list of to-do items.
Pretty much every day I take a look at my primary list of contacts and for most of the names on the list, I do nothing on that particular day. But I have them momentarily in mind, and I find that it makes me more likely to realize that something I learn or run across in some other aspect of life might be relevant to them. At some point over the next several weeks, I'll have a link to share with them, a reason to check up on their welfare, or a favor I need to ask of them.
While this might sound like a "system" for "making people think you're likeable," what it really boils down to is being more disciplined about keeping in touch with people you care about. That's the part to focus on.
To get started, dedicate a piece of paper to maintain a list of names for the next quarter. Just a simple piece of white paper. If you use a paper calendar, that's a good place to keep it. If you have a notebook where you jot down work-related notes, that's not a bad place either. It needs to be something you can refer to while at your desk.
Then, each week, be in contact with four people you know. Write their names down on this list. I make a point of putting a half hour block of time into my weekly calendar twice each week--I'm often ahead of the game and have already made my contacts, but this way I know I'll have time for it if I haven't gotten to it yet.
Bang, that's all there is to it. There are details, sure. But that's the main thing. As for where you come up with the four people you contact. Well, first, start with your existing email contact list (or whatever you use for an address book). Close friends you're in regular contact with don't count for this, but otherwise anyone in the book that you'd like to stay in touch with over the long haul is fair game. If you're like me, there are a lot of people in your book who are well on their way to disappearing from your life to the point that it will be too awkward to contact them ever again (and maybe you already feel that way, but then again maybe you should make the leap).
After you've done the above for a quarter, you'll have 48 names on your list (assuming you paced at four a week--I wouldn't try to do too many more than that). This list now becomes your second list and you take a fresh new piece of paper and start a new version of the first list. People you haven't contacted (within the scope of this system) go on the first list, four per week. The second list (the one with 48 names on it) is a list of people you need to be in touch with sometime in this second quarter. This is your ongoing contact list--when you're fully up and running with this system, you'll have approximately 200 names (four quarters worth of new names) and you'll need to touch each of them once each quarter.
Keeping up with the ongoing contact list is pretty easy in the second quarter because there are only the 48 names. Some of these folks are going to people that it's perfectly natural for you to be in touch with quite regularly. Others are going to be people you've only just met, or people you re-established contact with after a while where there are no natural points to return to for conversation. I'll be steadily updating this page to talk about how to keep in touch with these sorts of people, but suffice it to say that for some of the harder ones, having some sort of blog that you can point to the occasional entry you've made isn't a bad way to go for the less-well-connected folks. Surely once a quarter you'll have something to say that might be of interest to them--simply use Twitter to direct message them with a link to the entry. It's easy for them to ignore if they really want to; odds are, though, that since you aren't being pushy and you aren't (so far as you know) completely uninterested in each other, they'll have a look.
To keep things manageable, I don't try to do more than my four new people a week (why am I still adding new names after a year? -- I'll come back to that). Often I'll think of people--coworkers in other departments, former colleagues, etc.) who I could well stand to be in touch with. If I've got more than four, I write them down on the third list. I'll get to them in a dry week.
Another thing I track here: overloads of conference contacts. When I've gone to a larger conference, I'll often come home with a stack of cards of people I've met. I want to be clear--I don't just collect cards to have a big pile. These are cards of people I actually met and talked to for a while, people I might well have a reason to be in further contact with. I make a point of sending a quick "great to meet you" email, usually the same day as we've met, but then I'll follow up with them, four or so at a time, over the next weeks. How to do this right is a topic for a further update, but suffice it to say that you need to put a little extra attention into cementing this kind of encounter so that the person on the other end of the exchange actually remembers who you are and wants to further the conversation with you.
I furthermore use this third page to track what I call "try again next year" people. Let's say I remember an old colleague, find that person on LinkedIn, send them a quick note saying I'd thought of them the other day and wanted to say hello, see how things were going. Very occasionally, I get no reply back (95% of the time I get a reply within three days). There could be a lot of reasons for that, but I don't sweat the details. If I have any firm reason to think they simply don't care to be in touch, then that's that. I'm not pushy about this. If it seems more likely that my note got lost in the shuffle, I keep their name on this list and, in a year or so, I'll give them another shout.
Finally, I keep a list of aspirational sorts of people I'd like to be in contact with. Yes, this is arguably a fourth list (and I'll even confess I keep it separate from the three lists above, though it could really also go on that third page). Most of these people aren't huge leaps. No movie stars on my list. Mostly these are people who write blogs I find consistently worthwhile, along with some more conventional book authors. These are all people to whom it would be relatively easy to at least say hello at the end of a reading or lecture. There's not all that much value in that sort of hello, unless it leads to a further conversation, but the point is that on occasion it can do just that. So I keep the list. Once in a while, when a blogger writes something particularly interesting, I'll send them a response email and see what happens by way of reply. My results have been mixed, but worth continuing, I assure you.
Interestingly, when you get really up and going with this sort of approach, you start to get more inbound contacts. I can think of various explanations for why this might be, but whatever the reason, I think you'll find that you have the same experience. You'll get a note from out of the blue, a friend giving a talk in your city, or traveling through town to take their kid to college, or they've just started a business and are letting you know. An inbound contact absolutely counts toward your four new contacts for the week.
What's important, here, though, is that you'll have a far better plan for what to do with this gift. Because it's a gift, really. Someone thinks you're worth staying in touch with. From that point forward, you'll be on each other's radar on a regular, no-less-than-quarterly basis.
After a year of this, you'll have approximately 200 contacts with whom you're in contact four times a year. In my view, a quarterly ping is about right for keeping in touch and keeping yourself enough on the radar that people will think of you when the right sorts of opportunities come along or when they have information that would be particularly useful to you.
Of course, you'll need to be in touch with all 200 each quarter. It's not really a big task--sixteen a week--but it will require you to be a bit strategic about how you manage some of those contacts. In a perfect world, you see each of them face-to-face once a year. For some people this is a practical thing to do; in other situations it is completely impossible. No matter how you slice it, though, you're going to want to prioritize one or two quarterly pings and have the remainder be quick hits.
What counts for you as a quick hit will vary based on who's involved and how you feel about various points of contact. For me, for most of my list, replying to someone else's tweet is a perfectly legitimate quick hit. They'll fairly likely see it (because Twitter emphasizes replies to one's own tweets) and oftentimes it's a great, low-stress way to say hello. As mentioned above, a link to an appropriate blog entry you've written is a good, painless hello, and it has the advantage, in most cases, of connecting you with more than one person at a time.
You may find that 200 is plenty of folks to keep in touch with in this way. On the other hand, if you're good about how you handle your quicker pings, you can keep tabs on two or three times that many people. To do that, just keep adding 4 a week into the next year or two. Do it right, and you'll never lack for someone to chat with.
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