The Business Card Champion

They’re emblematic. They’re sources of pride. They’re personal 3.5” x 2” flags that summarize company, title, and contact information. The business card: If this piece of pocket sized card-stock were a piece of real estate, your reputation would be its tenant. Every castle needs its monarch.

In the age of kings and feudal lords, the King’s Champion was the representative of the monarchy—king, queen, royal family, regal reputation. The Champion would represent the royalty in tournaments, feats of daring, and sometimes, even for certain rights to a kingdom in dispute. Regardless of the stakes, success of the Champion ensured that a monarch’s reputation was maintained throughout domains of their and others’ rule.

For those of us with less regal aspirations, one modern day Champion of our reputations is the business card we choose to represent us and the means by which it is sent out into our respective corporate realms.

While the act of exchanging the information on business cards is itself rapidly evolving with card scanning technology and wireless forms of data swapping, the tangible business card itself can still be a source of exchangeable identity that ranges from the Spartan, no-frills information couriers to precisely designed standalone works of art.

The path by which your card travels into someone’s possession is almost as important as the card itself. If it’s not treated as a little anthropomorphic PR executive representing you with panache long after it’s left your side, it might just cause your reputation (or lack thereof) to get guiltlessly chucked straight into the recycle bin. Consider a few guidelines as you use these traditional yet powerful little banners of self identity and self promotion.

1. Behind Every Business Card is a Business Person
Behind every business card is a person: a father, a mother, a jet lagged traveler living out of his suitcase for the third consecutive week, a parent missing her daughter’s dance recital, somebody’s sleep-deprived best friend suffering in between time-zone changes.

Before you even get into the business of business card brokering, always acknowledge first and foremost to yourself that behind every title is that first name, middle initial, and last name. Behind even that is a real live person. Build a unique relationship that’s founded on the person rather than some flimsy piece of cardstock and you’ll be off to a good start. Business cards are doors only—the real network relationship is the person standing behind it.

2. Treat Your Business Cards as if They Were $1 Bills
What does behavioral economics have to do with networking? Everything! Diamonds are prized for their rarity; chunks of street gravel are not. Don’t be “that guy” walking around the dining room with a visible four-inch stack of cards, handing them out like you’re promoting the opening of a new car wash or take-out restaurant. If potential recipients see that the card they’re being given is visibly one of hundreds, how much value do you think they’ll assign to your card?

If you’re thinking about initiating, treat your business cards as if they were $1 bills Is there a business reason for the recipient to receive your card? Business card giving is about connections—professional connections on a personal level. Without such connections, your business card is likely to be forgotten in a dry-cleaner-bound shirt pocket or in the deep, anonymous clutter of someone’s purse.

3. Be a Historian.
As a recipient of a business card, before you lose the details of that encounter, jot a few quick notations on the back of the card: date introduced or met, location, quick note on context. The strength of your connections will only develop to be as good as the quality of those connections, particularly as you get to work with someone in true collaborative form. This doesn’t mean you have to be all Hollywood façade about getting to know someone more personally—recognize that sincerity is always in style. Remembering details of a pleasant conversation is always a good memento to collect while on the path to collaboration building.

4. From Raw Materials into Finished Goods (Now).
So you’ve exchanged good information and formed a good connection. How do you make the otherwise inert raw data on the business card into something more actionable?

As soon as you can, get the individual(s)’ e-mail and phone numbers into your contacts list or address book. Don’t let that untouched, aging business card stack grow any larger. Don’t wait. Go back to the hotel room and do it now. If you connected in an important way (which of course you did, right?) send a follow-up email soon afterwards and start working toward collaboration.

5. One Size Does Not Fit All: Some Etiquette-Related Exceptions

The Courtesy Swap
If someone offers you their business card, it is just professionally nice to reciprocate with your own. If you have run out or have just recently changed roles and don’t have cards yet, just say so.

Business Cards Abroad
Pay attention to local practices, particularly if you work and travel internationally. In Japan, everyone gets everyone else’s business card, whether they will be working directly with you or not. Particularly in parts of Asia, even the method and gestures by which the card is presented is important to keep in mind.

In some countries where title alone can sometimes trump the actual purpose of the meeting itself, your card can be a real primer as to how much in-depth work you’ll potentially be doing with your counterpart.

Published May 10, 2011 by Austin Lin

Filed under: business cards,

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

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