He finally took our advice and started spending time at the local coffee shop at the big box book store. Every Tuesday and every Thursday he was there from 9 to noon without fail, but after eight weeks he was pretty discouraged. He hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with anyone, hadn’t exchanged contact information with anyone, and hadn’t been able to invite anyone to the church’s upcoming “Abused Parents” seminar designed for their target audience of families with teenagers.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re introverted, shy, or just having trouble making connections. If you’ve found your way out of the church office and into the fishing pond of the real world and aren’t having conversations with staff and patrons alike, you’re wasting your time – you might as well be back in your office.
When Pastor T called me with his words of woe, I asked a few quick questions and we were able to discern the issue, make a couple easy corrections, and at last count he was having several chats each day with folks, and was having a couple deeply meaningful conversations every week. Even more impressive is that those exchanges were turning into an increase in his church’s first-time visitor count.
Mistake #1: Taking Your Black Floppy Bible With You
Pastor T is unapologetically Christian – a positive attitude, in my book. But he wanted everyone to know it at first glance. And so he never left his trusty “sword” at home. He rationalized that “you just never knew” when someone would need a comforting word from scripture – or when it could be profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, or for instruction in righteousness. All great reasons for carrying a Bible.
But there’s one very good reason for not carrying your big black floppy Bible (or anything identifiable as a Bible) with you: pretty much no one’s going to talk with you… especially someone who’s outside of the church and the faith. The problem with taking your Bible with you is that most people in the US don’t see your Bible as a book of comfort. As far as they’re concerned, that book might as well be a literal sword. They’ve seen (or heard of) far too many “Christians” using the Bible as a weapon against the unarmed. And so the unchurched (the very ones you want to have a conversation with) will avoid you as surely as if you’d put a Glock 17 on the table. (Though to be fair, you’d probably have plenty of conversations if you put your Glock on the table.)
So, start by taking down the “Approach at Your Own Risk” sign by leaving your black floppy Bible at home. Instead take your tablet, phablet, or smartphone with you and install a good Bible app on it. We use Olivetree Bible Software on our Droid and Apple products, but there are many other good options.
Mistake #2: Focusing On the Wrong Purpose
Pastor T was a busy guy. He had sermons to write, bulletins to create, newsletters to proof, blogs to catch up on, reports to complete, and no fewer than three unfinished books to read (if this is you, you might want to check out Five Things You’re Doing that Won’t Grow Your Church). So when he headed to the coffee shop, he had one thing on his mind – getting something off of his to-do list.
The good news is, he met his deadlines. The bad news is, as we’ve already seen, he didn’t leave with what he came for. There’s an unwritten rule in today’s entrepreneurial wold: If the entrepreneur is seriously officing at the bookstore, do not disturb him or her. It’s just common courtesy. So, if you look like you’re hard at work, you’ve put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign whether you’ve meant to or not.
If you’ve got a pressing deadline, then do that work in the office or at home or somewhere you won’t be disturbed. If you’re out of your office with the soul purpose of making connections, then turn your focus there (and yes, I do know the difference between sole and soul – no typo there – let’s remember there’s no work more important than connecting with unbelievers).
Mistake #3: Uninviting Body Language
This last mistake is not unlike the one above – except that Pastor T was exuding “Step AWAY from the table” with almost every move he made. You don’t have to be hyper-focused to be uninviting.
For Pastor T to correct his “Beware of Me” body language, we offered three recommendations.
- Practice Mindfulness. Remember, you’re there to make connections and to network. Being mindful of where you are and what’s going on around you is the first key to changing your body language. Instead of protecting yourself inside a cone of solitude, maintain an awareness of those in your proximity. In Pastor T’s case, this meant glancing around the whole coffee klatch to keep himself mindful of who was there, what folks were doing, etc. Awareness is the first step in networking.
- Be Open. It’s not enough to pay attention to what’s going on around you. If your eyes dart from table to table, you probably look creepy, not open. Don’t be a troll… be a greeter. Okay, not literally, but be that person who is warm and smiling and inviting and interesting (in all the right ways). When you make eye contact (that’s the goal – don’t be the “oops, sorry, didn’t mean to look at you” kind of person), smile, nod, or in some way acknowledge that you’ve seen the person and they’ve seen you. Of course, don’t stare and don’t leer (that’s a troll’s role), but don’t not look. Just the act of looking around communicates that you’re more open.
- Be Approachable. Just because you’re looking around and looking open, doesn’t mean you’re approachable. The difference lies in the attitude of your posture. Crossed arms, crossed legs, hunched shoulders, downturned head, and even pulling yourself up close to the table communicates that you’re not approachable. Similarly, focusing on doing something such as reading, writing, even playing games on your smartphone says you’re not available for a conversation.
All that’s not to say that you can’t do something while you’re networking. In fact, not doing something communicates that you’re busy waiting for someone or something – or that you’re trolling. So, by all means, DO something while waiting for a conversation opening. But use your body and your gestures to say, “Yeah, I’m doing something, but I’m not so busy that I’m unavailable or unapproachable.” Look up from your work to glance around the room and smile from time to time. When someone walks near you, look up at them, nod and smile. You could even break the silence by saying, “Good morning” as they pass.
Notably, this is the one mistake that the introverted and the shy are going to struggle with the most. But remember, you can get over being shy… you’re stuck with being an introvert (see The Introverted Leader for more). But neither should stop you from being the most effective connector in the room – and you don’t have to be gregarious to be a great connector and networker. You just have to be mindful, open, and approachable – and put out the right enticement.
Mistake #4: Not Using Bait. Okay, I’m not wild about the whole “bait” metaphor, but it communicates. I love 1 Peter 3:15 that suggests evangelism is best practiced when others ask us about our faith. The burning question is, “How do you elicit questions?” or perhaps more germane to this post, “How can you get a conversation started?”
Although there are many ways to start a conversation with someone you don’t know, for most people that’s pretty intimidating. If we can get others to offer an opening gambit, most of us can take it from there. Doing that generally takes more than just having open and inviting body language.
To encourage conversation, take something with you that invites conversation. I used to take a copy of my book Prayer for People Who Can’t Sit Still whenever I was coffee shop networking. It wasn’t because I wrote it, but because the title invited conversation. Almost daily, someone would see the book and stop with a comment, “I need that book!” or “I know someone who needs that book.” Sometimes that led to a deeply spiritual conversation, but most of the time it stayed pretty superficial. On the other hand, I was regularly able to build on the conversation and exchange contact information or at least open the door for future conversations.
Any book that has a catchy and enticing title could be used. But it doesn’t even have to be a book. Unique jewelry, tastefully and conspicuously worn, can evoke a conversation (but remember, rap stars of old and celebrities today wear big gold crosses, and pastors often wear big wooden ornamental crosses … both tend to communicate “Not safe to talk with”).
I watched one pastor set up an elaborate computer work station at her table one afternoon – a laptop, a small second monitor, and a pair of portable external hard drives. Although she had work to do, she practiced the mindful, open, and approachable principles. During the time I was there, she probably had a half dozen conversations with passersby who wanted to know about her set up. The “bait” you use for conversations is up to you … but measure its effectiveness. If you’re wearing a “Jesus said ‘My Way or the Highway'” t-shirt and no one speaks to you after a couple networking visits, consider switching baits. What works in Wichita may not work in Seattle.
If you’re going to be out of your office to make connections and to network with those outside the church and the faith, then make the most of your time. If you do, you’ll not only increase the number of significant conversations you have, you’ll see an uptick in your visitor count as well.
Question: How have you been able to maximize your effective networking when you’ve left the church office? Share your experience in the Comments section below.