When Networking, Skip the Acclaimed Six Degrees of Separation

You’ve heard that the best way to gain access to someone in a high position is to know somebody who knows somebody. But, if you’re relying on this to technique to network with the people you’d most like to meet, you’re holding yourself back. Try this strategy instead.

Since 1929, various writers have told us that we must go through six steps or connections before we establish communication with renowned high achievers. This mythical “six degrees of separation” has kept many believers confined to knowing only their peers or colleagues just one rank above. 

If this seemingly unavoidable procedure has kept you from getting acquainted with top echelon people because you couldn’t identify your friends who knew somebody who knew somebody else who knew. . . then the time has arrived to change your plan for moving up the networking ladder.

An illustration: Actor Jimmy Stewart donated his movie memorabilia to Brigham Young University—scripts, costumes, and other treasured artifacts from his career. So, he must have been an alumnus, right? No, he wasn’t. Then his children went there? No, he had no family connections. Nor was he a board member. Then why did he choose Brigham Young out of all the colleges and universities who offered majors in drama? Simple: Brigham Young officials asked him.

RELATED: 10 Tips for Successful Business Networking

Another example: A Georgia businessman who enjoyed local prominence, but no reputation beyond his local area, told friends that he had spent a most enjoyable day visiting with beloved television personality Art Linkletter in Linkletter’s home. “How did that happen?” friends asked the business leader: “Oh, I just called him one day, told him I admired his work, and would be willing to fly to California if he would allow me to meet him.” Bingo—that low key approach worked, without the allegedly required intermediaries.

To share a personal experience—one of many I have benefited from—years ago I went to a Masters Golf Tournament practice round. Standing near the twelfth tee, I looked to my right and saw Byron Nelson standing a few feet away. Dubbed “Lord Byron” by sportswriters during his stellar career, Nelson dominated professional golf before the days of jets and television and million dollar first prizes.

As I considered being so near this golfer I had idolized during my boyhood days, I could have thought: “Gosh, how I want to talk with him. Yet there’s nobody here to introduce me.” Fortunately, the only six steps I took were the ones with my feet as I approached him. Introducing myself, I mentioned my fond memory of seeing him play an exhibition in Hattiesburg, Mississippi when I was fifteen years old. Nelson could have said thanks and then walked away. Instead, we talked for about twenty minutes. To my delight, he described the Masters memories flooding through his mind as we stood in “Amen Corner.”

Eventually, Byron Nelson sent me a handwritten thank you note, acknowledging an article I wrote about our Masters meeting. I treasure that message, penned in his 92nd year. 

RELATED: 7 Strategies for People Who Hate Networking

So instead of obeying the acclaimed six steps—which are very likely to become barriers instead of the bridges you want—use these six strategies for meeting those on your “bucket list.”

FIRST: Develop a self-image of worth and confidence. A famous athlete and close friend once told me, “No one is better than you, no one is below you. We are all at the same level and nobody has more value than you do.” Rate yourself worthy of meeting anyone—on your own. 

SECOND: Consider how long it would take to follow the traditional six steps, even if they worked for you. By the time you reached your targeted celebrity, you might have lost your zest for talking with him or her. 

THIRD: Do your homework. Gather as much information about the individual as you can accumulate, a task which the Internet has simplified. Not only will your research keep you from asking turnoff questions, you will gain quick credibility.  

A classic how not-to-do-it instance happened when Charles Lindbergh returned to Paris to accept an award at a dinner honoring his epic flight, making him the first pilot to solo across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris. At the awards dinner, one uninformed guest seated next to him asked: “Mister Lindbergh, is this your first trip to Paris?” You can imagine how brief that conversation was.

FOURTH: Use the same courtesy you would employ with anybody else. Avoid rushing up to the person when he or she is engaged in conversation with someone else. Wait until that other person steps away. Though you might be justifiably excited, your haste could mark you as a rude stranger to stay away from.

FIFTH: Check your inclination to immediately request anything as a souvenir. An opening sentence of “Gee, I want your autograph, and of course I’d love a photo with you to show my friends and family” is not advisable. Once you spend quality time with your idol, those perks might seem appropriate, but at the outset they will probably sound shallow and self-seeking. Best case scenario will be when your new friend makes that suggestion without your prompting.

SIXTH: Use an informal, relaxed, warm tone of voice and an unofficial appearance. Public figures welcome those who talk with them without resembling an inquisitive reporter. Just be your authentic self, clearly comfortable and neither intimidated nor over aggressive.

Yes, the time-honored six degrees of separation are probably keeping you away from those you would most like to meet. However, the six strategies I recommend might very well take you to a quick and even lasting friendship with those you admire and long to know.

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