It’s been a few months since I released part 1 of this post. I took the summer off from writing, but I have indeed done a bit of networking and feel like I’ve given myself enough time and space that I actually have some new and valuable learnings to share.
My first attempt at networking took place shortly after my last networking post, and it was absolutely terrifying; everything I had planned went completely out the window. I was at a speaker series and I had asked a colleague to make sure I actually talked to people.
When the talk finished, there was a bit of time for people to hang around and chat. We scouted out the room but everyone was already in groups talking to other people. After standing around for 5 or 10 minutes, I realized that the only way I was talking to anyone was if I actually approached them.
Approaching a group of people mid-conversation is absolutely terrifying. But I was determined to make good on my goals. I spotted my target circle and knew it was now or never. I started to make my way over and as luck would have it, another couple of ladies were approaching the circle at the same time.
This was my chance. Tip #1 “open with a compliment” was in my back pocket. I had been repeating it to myself in my head the whole time, trying to think up potential opening compliments or conversation starters for various individuals in the room. But as I closed the distance, I choked. “Hey.” was all that came out. That’s not really a quality conversation opener.
By some magical stroke of luck, one of the women recognized me from a fitness class and without too much awkwardness we managed to start up a conversation. We found ourselves in the midst of a group discussing someone’s small business venture. Though we hadn’t been formally invited to the conversation, the man who was speaking immediately began to make eye contact with the newcomers to the circle. This was incredibly reassuring. It was a silent signal that we were welcome and weren’t intruding.
Eventually, I was fully integrated into the circle, chatting with people and having exciting conversations. In my brain, I was thinking “I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” but my body was completely rejecting the entire experience. Despite my excitement at knowing I was achieving my goals, my hands would not stop shaking.
I didn’t anticipate the intense anxiety that accompanied this experience. Even as I walked back to my car, I was incredibly shaky and the tightness in my chest would not go away. When I got back to work I couldn’t focus at all. I ended up going home on my lunch break for some much-needed puppy snuggles to calm my nerves.
Despite the harrowing experience, I attended a marketing conference in Calgary (SocialWest) a few weeks later. I was delighted to see a few great touches that really fostered a welcoming community.
Everyone attending the conference who supplied their Twitter handles got added to a Twitter list where we could engage with one another prior to the conference. There was also an app where attendees could enter their contact details along with a short bio and profile picture. This made it easy to find people at the conference and even easier to connect with them online when the conference was over. I was determined to do better at talking to people during the 2 1/2 day event.
On opening night, I approached a woman sitting alone at a table and we were later joined by her husband and one of my work colleagues for the evening. This was a much more relaxed way to meet someone new. I didn’t have to shuffle around or feel forced to introduce myself eight million times, and I got to spend time getting to know a new couple and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was a much less stressful situation, to say the least. It gave me the confidence to keep trying during the rest of the conference.
I sat next to someone new at almost every conference session. I found that simply asking “is this seat taken?” seemed to lead easily enough into chatting with someone about how they were enjoying the conference, what they were hoping to learn, and a little bit about their personal life. Did I make any amazing new friends? No. But I did become a lot more comfortable introducing myself to people and chatting with them and not being overwhelmed.
All in all my key takeaways are:
Practice is important.
Practice doesn’t make perfect (yet), but it definitely makes it easier. Planning is also important, but it’s also important to realize that networking doesn’t have to mean attending formal networking events, forcing yourself into awkward circles and listening to people’s elevator pitches.
Any social situation can be an opportunity to get to know people a little better. I could have easily given up after that first terrifying experience and said: “Nope, networking isn’t for me, my body is sending me clear signals that this is not okay and I’m just going to be fine without it”. But instead, I tried again, and again. I still don’t love it, not even close, but I know it’s important, and I am getting better each time.
Planning only gets you so far.
You can do all the planning in the world, but sometimes you just gotta fly by the seat of your pants. My well-constructed plan went right out the window on my first try. And yet somehow, with just a “Hey” I managed to get somewhere. I think it’s more about learning how to open yourself up to the possibilities.
Networking events aren’t usually the best place to do networking. Instead, seek out events that interest you and provide value. Any social situation can be an opportunity to network if you allow yourself to be open to it.
My husband and I went backpacking this summer and we met lots of really interesting people on the trails. It was nice bumping into people and finding out where they were from and what brought them to the area. We were open to meeting new people and by approaching our travels that way, we had a lot of really great experiences we may not have had otherwise.
Eye contact matters.
Make eye contact with those you’re talking to, and anyone hanging out nearby who looks like they might be trying to break into the circle to chat. Eye contact helps people feel at ease and lets them know you’re engaged in the conversation.
I mentioned this as part of active listening techniques in my last post, but once I experienced the difference it made when trying to make new connections, I really understood just how important it is.
Anxiety is a real thing for us introverts. I had read in Andrea Barrica’s introvert networking article that she often lets herself sleep in on networking days and allows herself small breaks if she gets overwhelmed. I kind of discounted that when I first read it. I figured I just needed to suck it up and I’d be fine. Boy was I wrong. After just a 15 minute conversation with new people, I had the shakes so bad, I had to leave work and give myself a break before I could be productive. So yes, you may need to give yourself some extra self-care if you’re determined to network. And puppy snuggles. Puppy snuggles post-networking make everything better.
Networking doesn’t always have to be face-to-face.
Use all the tools at your disposal. Networking tips apply to the online realm too. Every social platform has its strengths and weaknesses. Twitter is great for conversations about current events and discussing common interests. Countless online forums, Facebook groups, and subreddits exist for just about every topic you can dream of.
Friends on the internet can be just as important as face-to-face friends. If you’re going to a bigger event like a conference or trade show, do some research on fellow attendees online in advance. This way you can get an idea of who you really want to talk to and connect with. You can even research some of their past accomplishments and have an amazing icebreaker that fits in with my tip from the last article about opening a conversation with a compliment.
Stay chill, friends.
Finally, just relax. Sometimes it’s not worth it to stress yourself out to the point of exhaustion over something. It’s all about baby steps and setting goals you can actually achieve and progressing from there. You are allowed to take breaks. It’s not all about the hustle, despite what some may say.
Full disclosure: I went to another conference near the end of summer and did absolutely ZERO networking there. I chose to focus on spending quality time with the people I was attending with instead, and that’s okay.
Enjoy the quiet moments and revel in comfortable silences. when you take care of yourself, things like networking really can work, it just takes a little effort.