Years ago, I used to work in the Career Services department at a university. My job was to network with employers and try to get them to hire our students.

Looking back, I might’ve been one of the worst “networkers” you’d ever seen.

I was shy and introverted; I had a hard time approaching people. But worse – I was fake. I had begun relying on flattery and empty praise in hopes that people would like me and want to work with me.

But no one ever did. Turns out, no one wants to be friends with superficial people who use flattery to get ahead. Who knew? As comedian Whitney Cummings once described people-pleasing:

“You’re not pleasing anybody. You’re just making them resentful because you’re being disingenuous, and you’re also not giving them the dignity of their own experience. It’s patronizing.”

I’d go to conferences and spend hours around hundreds of high-level professionals, people who could really change my life and career… if only I knew how. But nothing was working. 

I had been failing at networking for months. I was at another conference, trying the same ol’ schtick. 

I was talking with someone I’d just met, and they asked me one of the usual ice-breaker questions: “So, how are you liking the conference?”

I could’ve said what I’d been saying for months: “I love it! I especially loved (insert generic workshop here) and the luncheon! How about you?? Let’s trade business cards! What’s your name again??”

But I didn’t say that. 

Maybe I was just frustrated with all the failure; maybe I was tired of getting rejected and spending hours building empty relationships with people who’d promise to call me back but never did.

So instead of the generic answer, I responded as honestly as I could. 

I didn’t realize I was about to stumble on one of the most powerful secrets to relationships I’d ever learn.

“Actually…I don’t know,” I admitted. “Honestly, I kind of suck at networking. I’m really bad at meeting people. I never know what to say, and it’s just hard.”

I was expecting an awkward response, maybe some nice little advice on networking. But I was stunned by what she said:

“Oh my gosh,” she exclaimed in a low voice, suddenly very serious. “Me too! I hate these things.”

We ended up having one of the most powerful conversations I’d ever had at a conference. We talked about our struggles as educators in higher education, about the hardships of trying to help students. We had a real conversation, free from flattery or an agenda. 

She eventually connected me with her entire staff, including her director and the highest-ranking professionals in her entire department. We helped each other for many months after that.

Want to be best friends with powerful, wise mentors who can help you achieve your biggest goals?

Don’t do what I did. Don’t try to fake your way into the party. That never works.

But when you start with just being yourself, your greatest accomplishments –  and relationships –  will follow. 

How to be an attractive conversationalist and irresistibly influence the people around you

I’ve spent years learning how to talk with high-level people, building lasting relationships. 

I wasn’t good at it. I grew up with a stutter, and I constantly mumbled and stammered my way through conversations. To think that I would ever become a good conversationalist seemed crazy.

I’ve found that the art of charisma –  of attracting, charming, and influencing the people around you –  is not pretending to be something you’re not, but fully expressing who you really are. Only when you are honest and frank can you truly connect with someone else. 

Becoming an attractive conversationalist starts like any other skill –  practice. As American author Frank Crane once wrote: “The key to being a good conversationalist is probably a genuine unselfish interest in others. That, and practice.” If you’re an introvert like me, and if conversation with strangers comes hard to you, that’s OK. Sometimes, progress comes really hard. Take what you can.

But let me be clear: Before you’re able to influence anyone and make lasting relationships, you have to work on the first step – the conversation. 

One of the most powerful conversation killers (besides being fake, like I was) is appearing bored. True, you may find yourself in many boring conversations as you begin networking and meeting others. But as best-selling author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss one put it, “Treat everyone like they can put you on the front page of the New York Times.” 

People want to be listened to. They want to be heard. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Fortune 500 CEO or an entry-level employee; people want to have fun and have good conversation. You never know who that person really is – or who they know.

You can be a great conversationalist by being honest, authentic, and present. Wherever you are, make sure you’re actually there. We all know what it’s like to be talking to someone who obviously isn’t listening. It’s insulting and humiliating. 

But when you truly listen, you can begin hearing and understanding people in ways most people usually never see. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Once you demonstrate you’re one of the few people who will actually listen (without trying to gain an advantage or use the conversation to further promote your own interests), people start engaging. The truth is, most people rarely feel heard in conversations; you can take advantage of this by being one of the few people out there truly willing to listen.

This is how you influence people, how you show them you can be trusted, that you’re a genuinely unselfish individual. And people usually want to help those kinds of people. 

Be present. Truly listen. You can easily stick out from the crowd when you show people you’re not there to get ahead or use them, but to actually connect with them on a human level.

How to cultivate long-term relationships with high-level mentors

Making a good first impression with high-level professionals is the first step, but the relationship only becomes truly strong if it lasts long-term. 

I’ve successfully built relationships with best-selling authors, six-figure entrepreneurs, and keynote speakers. These relationships are incredible –  the level of wisdom, guidance, and advice they can give me is truly extraordinary. 

But more importantly, I’ve learned how to sustain these relationships. What could’ve been a one-time transactional relationship turned into a years-long bond based on mutual trust and respect. 

Cultivating these lasting relationships is based on how you’re able to help them with their work. The better you are at that, the more success you’ll have making these relationships last for years.

Right now, you may not have a lot of these high-level relationships. Maybe you feel like you don’t know the first thing about how to create them. That’s fine. In the meantime, focus on learning, creating, and getting better at your craft. That value can increase 10x if you can use it to help someone else.

Here’s an example: a few months ago, I got an email from a reader who was launching his book right around when I was launching mine. Basically, he asked if I could “scratch his back and he’d scratch mine,” each promoting the other’s book to our respective audiences.

Now, I do this sometimes. I have colleagues with enormous email lists, like I do, and we both help each other. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that builds rapport and trust.

But while I had tens of thousands of followers, he had…less than 100. 

By working together, he would be getting 1000x more value on his end, while I’d get almost none. Since he couldn’t really offer me true help in promoting my book, I decided to pass on his offer. 

High-level mentors want their effort to be reciprocated. Ask yourself: Do you have a platform, an audience, or a skill set that is truly valuable to someone? Can you help in ways others can’t?

It’s okay if you don’t have these resources yet. But instead of sending cold emails and trying to network with high-level people, focus on building your value first. Then, when a high-level mentor truly needs help, you’ll be able to help them.

This is how you cultivate long-term relationships. For the most part, people like associating with people at their level. While you’re building your conversational and networking skills, you must be building your value and skill set on the side. That way, you can prepare for the opportunity to help a high-level mentor when it truly matters. 

In conclusion

Consistently developing long-term relationships with high-level mentors is one of the most important (and most lucrative) skills you can work on. Many people try to take a shortcut, “skipping the line” and trying to get something out of a high-level influencer.

Frankly, that might actually work sometimes. But in the end, this is a losing strategy that doesn’t end with true relationships. 

Focus on being a better conversationalist; be honest, not superficial. Be authentic, not fake. When you try to flatter and people-please to get ahead, it never works. 

While you’re working on this skill, work on your own skill set. Build an audience, grow your platform. Learn the skills behind this, so that when the time comes, you can actually provide a high-level mentor with truly valuable help.