You’d know a business networking opportunity if you saw one, right? It usually has the term “conference” or “network” right in the title. That’s where the treasure lies: if only you had more of these networking opportunities.

Do you realize that every person could be a possible contact, a potential friend? Every interaction with someone—no matter how brief—is an opportunity to take things a step further and create a relationship. I call these brief interactions you have throughout your day, Networking Appetizers.

Networking Appetizers are encounters that last no more than a few moments. An elevator ride, a leisurely walk to the same building, the line at the local Starbucks (okay, that one can last more than a few minutes). You may believe that nothing important will come out of such an interaction, so you keep to yourself and give half-hearted smiles and whispery “Hellos” as you meet someone’s eye (despite your best efforts to avoid doing so). You rush through the interaction, hoping to escape unscathed by all the strangers around you.

Yet those people could have changed your life.

A Quick Bite to Eat

Why are these instances “appetizers”? For one thing, they’re short. They aren’t meant to last. At a restaurant, people can order three or four appetizers to get a taste of their meal to come. Think about how many times you ride in an elevator throughout the week. How many lines you stand in. How many people you have a chance to interact with, but don’t. If you add up the number of such encounters , they turn out to be a large chunk of your time with a large number of interactions. Yet most of us try to get through them without sampling the dishes. We run past the appetizer hoping that we can make it to the main course, a “real” networking event.

It may take several hours to prepare for a networking conference lasting one hour a month, yet we have several hours of casual, unplanned networking opportunities every day that we ignore. Remember, it’s a numbers game. Sample enough appetizers and you’ll quickly—and inexpensively—find one you like, even love. In one sitting you can try several appetizers, but only one main course. It takes another visit to that same restaurant to try a different entrée.

Appetizers for Practice

Networking Appetizers are chances to interact with people. They are opportunities to practice your skills for creating relationships. Initiating the conversation, gestures, stories, physical interaction, jokes and closings are vital communication skills that Appetizers allow you to practice every day in a low-pressure environment. Would you wait until game one of the World Series to practice bunts and grounders? No, baseball players have preseason and season training. They even train to train!

Networking skills are no different. Anyone can be effective at communicating and creating relationships, but not everyone wants to put forth the effort to try. It is much easier to spend our Appetizers pretending to check our phone messages. But the opportunity will come when superb networking skills are needed and you only have one shot. Bottom of the ninth, scores tied, two outs, full count: two strikes, three balls. How do you hold the bat again?

Networking Appetizers cost little. They offer you the chance to try new methods and skills with little or no risk. Trapeze artists can perform astounding feats without any safety equipment. However, they only arrive at this point by practicing over and over—with a safety net. This gives them the security to try new stunts and bigger and crazier moves without fear.

Appetizer opportunities give you the same freedom. Try a new joke on the waiter before you tell it to your hottest prospect. Can you comment on a woman’s shoes? Sure, if you are a woman; it may be viewed as odd if you are a man. Do people care to talk about the weather? Or do they dismiss the conversation? Practice searching for people’s hidden interests and striking up conversations about them. With Appetizers, you can even go for broke. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?

The Thirty-Second Relationship

Appetizers add up every day, including repeat situations. Sure, you may only have thirty seconds to order your coffee at Starbucks. But how many times have you been there this week? And how many times have you ordered from the same person? Relationships can be based on a continuous lifetime together, such as a family member, or on intermittent encounters. You don’t have to be just another face to a bank teller. And they don’t have to be just another person servicing your life.

Don’t feel awkward initiating a conversation with someone you see every day but have never spoken to. It is never too late to create a connection. If you start today, you can launch a new relationship with someone who brightens up your day. And that’s one of the rewards of sampling and celebrating Networking Appetizers: they enliven our days. Your entire life can be changed by a Networking Appetizer.

My aunt and uncle have been married for over twenty-five years and they love to tell the story of how they met. My aunt entered an elevator and my uncle, late for work, just made it in as the doors were closing. They started talking in the elevator…and the rest is history. That split-second timing made all the difference in both of their lives. The people you encounter every day may make all the difference in yours. Since realizing this, I’ve learned never to press the “Close Doors” button—because I never know what opportunity may walk in through those doors.

ERIC SCHNAPP is a young entrepreneur currently in his
second year of business school at Vanderbilt
University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.
He coauthored with his siblings
Legally Clueless: A Law
Guide for Young People about the legal rights and situations
high school and college students most often come across.