Gratitude for the power of networking

I met the owner of an office supply company one morning in the latter half of 2014 at a St. Louis Bread Company in Chesterfield, Missouri. We became acquainted at a Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce networking event. He offered to meet later, hear my story and do what he could to help me make contacts.

It was just one small event in a long series that solidified everything I know about the power of networking. More on that later.

A few weeks before my meeting with my office supply friend, I’d been laid off for the third time in my career, let go without a severance package. I dove into contract work, attending any networking event I could find in hopes of starting to fill the pipeline and develop regular income.

Over coffee that morning at Bread Co., I shared my story, stammered about what I thought I could offer potential clients—I was still trying to figure that out—and then I asked whether there was anything I could do for him. Did he need any introductions? Could I connect him with someone in my network?

“No,” he said. “Don’t worry about that. Now is the time when you need to let other people help you. You’ll have a chance to help someone else later.”

He had given me a gift I will never forget.

He was right. I did need help. I had virtually nothing to offer, aside from my professional writing, editing and content management skills. And he was also right about the chance to help.

One networking connection begets another

Over the course of about 10 months, from late spring 2014 until early spring 2015, I benefited from the kindness of numerous individuals. I met them in restaurants, at Starbucks, at Bread Co., and at Kaldis. I met them one-on-one and I met them in crowded bars and teeming conference centers.

I asked for a meeting with a man I’d had a passing acquaintance with, a local legend in social media management and creative marketing strategies. He connected me with someone who offered me freelance work. I’m still doing work for his firm as part of my side hustle.

I met a woman at a massive networking event in the lobby of a university auditorium. She now runs her own staging business for home sellers. She invited me to meet for coffee later and persuaded me to attend another networking event, where she introduced me to her friend, a leading real estate agent in the area. When I casually mentioned I needed to stop and buy stamps later, she offered me one from her purse—and invited me to meet later for coffee so she could hear my story.

That led to another networking event that she hosted each month. At this one, around Christmastime 2014, I met her husband, the CEO of a local nonprofit that works with top MBA programs to recruit underrepresented minorities into business school.

Soon, I was speaking to his team about a regular contract gig doing communications work for his organization. Eight months later, the organization hired me full time.

Cultivating the networking connections

Meanwhile, another connection from an earlier point in my career had connected me with the communications director at Washington University’s Olin Business School. As luck would have it, she almost immediately had freelance writing work available for me. She and her colleagues offered me writing work for most of the next 16 months.

Over that period, I worked hard for the nonprofit and continued with the freelance work I’d managed to cultivate, thanks to the contacts I’d made through regular networking and the generosity of the people I met.

Then, everything converged. The communications director at WashU’s business school retired. I’d been working for her and her colleagues. I was employed full-time for a organization that worked with business schools, so I was conversant in the topic.

They offered me the job. A job that plays even better to my strengths. A job that paid me more and that lets me work on a gorgeous campus surrounded by some of the smartest people in St. Louis.

And that’s where I am today.

Lessons learned about networking

I’m no expert. There are plenty of people who profess to be experts at networking—and they probably are. Also, this post doesn’t begin to pay homage to all the people who helped me make connections, offered me opportunities and reassured me.

I can only tell you what I’ve learned about networking.

  • It’s the only thing that works. If you want a job, you have to network.
  • People genuinely want to help—even if they’re people you’d presumably be competing against for opportunities.
  • Don’t end a networking meeting without asking two questions: How can I help you? Who else do you know that I should talk to?
  • You never know, Part I. You never know where the opportunities will arise. I met so many brilliant people who filled unsung niches in the business world. They were financial analysts, purveyors of marketing tchotchkes, wine sellers and more. Few could use my services, or would value it. But often, they’d know someone.
  • You never know, Part II. You never know how long it’ll take for opportunity to arise. One networking visit ended with a freelance opportunity on the spot, which developed into a longer-term gig. The nonprofit opportunity I described took five months to gel after meeting the woman who became the first link in that chain.
  • Be interested in what other people do. It’s not hard. They’re interesting.
  • ABN: Always be networking.
  • Accept help. Know when you need help and accept it. Because you’ll have the chance to help others later.
  • Later, help others. Since going through my own challenges, I know of at least two people who got jobs because of connections I helped them forge. I never turn down a networking meeting because I never know whether it will be a chance to help out again. It’s a great feeling to know you’ve had the chance to return the favor.

Today, I’m employed full-time again and I maintain a few small freelance jobs on the side. I confess that I’ve let my network start to grow fallow. Such is the curse of those who get a regular W-2 paycheck, I suppose. But I know my network is there, bigger and stronger than ever. And I hope that when I need it, they’ll be there for me again.

Taking things away is not innovation

At user number 708,134, I’m among the first 0.4 percent of Evernote users. A little more than three years ago, Evernote sent its users a thank you email on the occasion of its five-year anniversary. I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of early adopter I’d been of the note-saving service.

The email inspired me to redouble my efforts to master the Evernote service. I watched a number of tutorial videos, installed it on all my devices, learned my “Evernote email address” and leaned on it even more than I ever had before.

evernote-user-numberIn fact, Evernote has typically been among the first applications I’ve ever installed on a new computer, laptop or mobile device. I lean on it to save recipes, notes from work, photos, to-do lists and much more. I photograph business cards and save them in an Evernote notebook (and thanks to OCR technology, they become searchable).

I read material that might work in the “business of journalism” class I teach at Washington University in St. Louis — and easily save that material to Evernote for my later review.

So I was annoyed two weeks ago when another Evernote email announced it would be taking away features from its basic, free service — the one I’ve been using for eight years now.

EverNote-to-OneNote-FIIn a month, I was told, I would only be able to sync my notes on two devices, rather than the unlimited number I could before. I use the Evernote app on two computers, two tablets and my cellphone. It’s handy to have a recipe I saved on my laptop available on my cellphone when I’m at the grocery store.

Taking away features has been Evernote’s hamfisted way to try and to shove users into one of its premium tiers — either Plus, for $35 a year, or Premium, for $70. Not that long ago, Evernote took away the ability for basic users to forward emails into their Evernote account.

The truth is, I could afford the $35 for the Plus plan. I’m just not impressed with the way Evernote has made its basic service less attractive, rather making the premium services irresistible. So, I fired up my old Windows 7 machine so I could use Microsoft’s importer to save my Evernote files in OneNote.

Perhaps I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face. I’ll try out OneNote for awhile and see if that’s the case.

Why storytelling will become the biggest business skill

Yes, it’s a 2-year-old piece, but it’s still relevant. “The reason Kickstarter works, and how thousands of creators have rallied the support of millions on its platform, is because it allows people to get their stories in front of others. And it doesn’t just allow it; Kickstarter requires it.” (Via HubSpot, republished from

My daughter works for a dance nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that’s using storytelling to attract donors to support a new outdoor art space it’s developing.

Since 1986, Dance Place has invested in transforming Brookland / Edgewood into an Arts District. Today, we embark on the final chapter of a journey that created the Brookland Artspace Lofts in 2011 and fueled Dance Place’s dramatic renovation in 2014. Your contribution will complete a vision three decades in the making, of a true arts campus in Brookland / Edgewood.

Pictured above: A rendering of the 8th Street Arts Park planned for Dance Place in Washington, D.C.

4 alternatives to lousy clickbait list slideshows

I announced on Facebook a few days ago that I would no longer indulge in website lists that force me to click through a slideshow to read all the information. “From now on,” I wrote, “if I click a link for a list of the ‘X things that Y,’ and I am greeted by a slideshow that forces me to click through for all the information, I’m backing out. Tired of this lousy and inefficient reader experience.”

It took virtually no time at all for friends to pile onto the topic in agreement. “I TOTALLY agree. I hate that,” one wrote. “And when it’s compounded by a slow slideshow, it really pisses me off.” The tenor of the replies carried on along those lines. One of them said he had given up on clickbait like that.

And yes, clickbait it may be. Do I really need to know the 20 Reasons Star Trek is Better than Star Wars (or, CNET’s corresponding 23 reasons Star Wars is Better than Star Trek)? No, probably not, but I’m not above a little clickbait like that from time to time. That’s part of the fun of the Internet. That’s really not what I object to.

And, by the way, not all lists are vapid clickbait. I actually hate this technique even more when it’s truly valuable, useful information. (I might have legitimately been interested in “15 Secret Technologies Invented by the Nazis,” but no. It was a slideshow.)

What I object to is the poor user experience, the plodding pace of the storytelling using that technique and the often confusing navigation that accompanies it.

There are better ways

Forego the short-term page views for long-term loyalty. There are sites that I now recognize in my Facebook newsfeed as the culprits of this lousy reader experience. If I see those sites are the source of one of these listicles, I won’t bother clicking anymore. I know they’re looking for page views, but if they’d given me a good user experience, I’d return in a flash for interesting clickbait. Just give me a single page.

Give us a choice. I recently landed on a listicle that was set up as a slideshow, but gave me the choice to view it as a single page. Great. The web is all about choice. Thanks for the choice! Who knows? Maybe the slideshow would have actually been a better experience on a mobile device?

Summarize. Give me the lowdown up front. If your summary is compelling enough, you might pique my interest enough to compel me to click through your slideshow. Even if I don’t, you’ve made a friend, so I’m more likely to return (see point No. 1 above).

Headline list. Let the main piece list a useful headline for each “slide” in the slideshow. If you’re telling me about the 10 Android apps you can’t live without, list them, briefly, with a two- or three-word summary. Link to the fuller description from there. Again, see point No. 1.

And for the record, Star Wars and Star Trek defy comparison. One is better for epic cinematic chapters in the life of the Empire and the Rebellion; the other is better for more character development and subtle story arcs on the small screen.

Nice tutorial for navigating pages after Facebook’s changes

Nice overview by writer Andrea Vahl. As she says, “I’m cranky about it, too. And there are extra steps involved. I don’t like extra steps. But it’s Facebook and it changes weekly.” Thanks for the tour!

Facebook Changes: Log In as Your Page and Like Other Pages

A living language, unless we disagree with the AP Stylebook

We consider English to be a living language. It grows and adapts and changes as our needs change. That’s why “myriad” can be both a noun and an adjective in nearly the same context. That’s why “google” can enter the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb eight years after Google was founded.

Then something like this happens and the world goes crazy:

That yielded lots of responses in this vein. Some more vitriolic, some less so:

The reaction was even more outraged two years ago, when AP decided “over” was just as acceptable as “more than” when referring to numerical values:

I like to consider myself a fan of the language, someone who appreciates its ability to adapt and change. I was happy to see cellphone and smartphone declared single words by the Associated Press Stylebook overlords, for example. But I can’t abide the decisions on “internet” (there, I did it) and “over” vs.” more than”). So I guess that makes me less flexible than I thought I was.

I’m struggling in the same way with the change in the past year over use of the word “they” (and its related forms) as a singular pronoun, as in, “Everyone wants their soup served hot.” The Washington Post famously reported last December that it would embrace the use of they (and related forms) as a singular noun. The change came largely, as it said, with the “increasing visibility of gender-neutral people.” A few weeks later, 200 American Dialect Society linguists declared the singular “they” to be “word of the year.”

I completely get it. I understand the reasoning 100 percent. Yet, I’m not sure I’m ready to give up the plural “they.” I’ll get there. Give me some time. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

What makes it easy for us to accept some adaptions in language, but not others?

It’s not called ‘House of Geniuses’

On March 17, I attended a networking meeting called House of Genius. It was the most fun I’d had in weeks. I spent three hours surrounded by sharp minds, eager to help one another in a productive and non-threatening environment. If you get the chance, take it.

Here’s why.

You’re invited to attend the monthly meet-up along with 18 to 20 others. You arrive, but you’re required to remain anonymous. First names only. No talk about your profession, your education, your background, your expertise. You’re just another person. Yeah, it’s awkward for the first few minutes as the crowd gathers. It’s amazing how much of our identity is wrapped up in our professions.

The group convenes around a table and receives a five-minute presentation by a group member with a business issue he or she would like to solve. The audience asks questions; the presenter responds. Audience members throw out suggestions while a scribe takes it all down for the presenter. Audience members shout out “plus-one” to ideas they endorse. They say “minus-one” to those they don’t—and they explain why.

The process repeats with two more presenters. Our group heard from the executive director of a nonprofit looking to diversify its fundraising; a local school district teacher seeking ways to evaluate a novel high school entrepreneur program; and a startup food product maker looking to make the leap to expand production.

The beauty of the process is in the anonymity. Everyone’s ideas are welcome and equally valid. Nobody self-censors because they think their expertise can’t compete with the person’s across the table. Everyone brings their own perspectives and all of them are valid. House of Genius is a international organization with chapters in 31 cities.

It was fun to joke about being one of the “geniuses” invited to that month’s party. Organizers even gave us “genius” stickers (I gave mine away). But the beauty of the process is that it’s a house of genius—one genius. And the genius is in the collective mind of those assembled that night.

It’s a notion reflected on the main House of Genius website: “The true ‘genius’ is in the collaboration—you’ll be amazed at the power of thinking that is evoked from the structure of the sessions and the synergetic format.” Indeed, I was.

Only at the end of the evening does the “reveal” happen and the attendees properly introduce themselves. Then, there’s beer.

I hope I get invited back sometime. You can potentially get the chance to attend by registering on the St. Louis chapter’s website. You might try hitting them up on Twitter @GeniusSTL.

And a h/t to my friend and colleague Daniela Velázquez for extending the invitation.

6th issue of Out & About is out and about


The second-quarter edition leads with the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show and STEM Expo.

I’ve been fortunate to have a relationship with the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce for going on two years now. That relationship has enabled me to work with the chamber on its quarterly community news magazine, Out & About. The magazine had been published for many years with a partner company the chamber had relied on.

When that relationship ended, I was invited to consult with the chamber to remake the magazine into a quarterly (it had been bimonthly) and to create content that was more singularly focused on the Chesterfield community.

We reviewed a wide variety of publications around the St. Louis area and within Chesterfield to get a notion of what the sweet spot for Out & About would be. I worked with Executive Director Nora Amato and a small team of chamber members who are involved in publishing and marketing to arrive at these conclusions:

  • Chamber’s Mission: The publication would need to reflect the chamber’s mission, which is articulated simply as “Connect, Learn and Grow.” (Read Nora’s column about this in the April 2015 edition.) The chamber exists to help its members do those things. One way the magazine fulfills that mission is through editorial and advertising opportunities to reach residents of the community and through packaging Out & About promotion/advertising with other chamber sponsorship opportunities.
  • Distribution influences content: Given the distribution model (postal delivery to the 63005 and 63017 ZIP codes of Chesterfield), the content would also have to have a general interest focus. In other words, it’s not only business oriented content; it’s for the general Chesterfield resident.
  • Schedule affects content: The chamber did not have the capacity to publish Out & About more often than quarterly. That meant the content had to be feature-oriented, with a long shelf-life. So, for example, rather than running a comprehensive list of events in the magazine, we publish highlights of the biggest community happenings and provide links to online resources that can offer more. We are careful to make sure chamber events are prominently displayed.

I’ve been pleased to have the chance to work with the chamber now on our sixth issue together, the April-June 2016 edition, which will be hitting mailboxes any day now. You can find online versions of all six editions here.

I’d also like to give a shoutout to St. Louis-area designer Anna Keith, who designed the last two editions of the magazine. She’s been a dream to work with.

Why Your Company Should Blog

Great points in this post from Business 2 Community. The writer makes three key points in the call for companies to take blogging seriously. In fact, more than take it seriously: Companies should prioritize it.

  • It reinforces messages from the company to employees, who are doubtless reading the company’s blog.
  • It can support, reinforce and supplement the information your sales team provides to potential clients.
  • It builds “the digital pedigree of emerging brand experts.”

More here.