Networking Survival Guide
Networking events. I bet you hate them. You aren’t alone. As a professional actor and director, I have been teaching professionals and academics how to use acting skills to improve their communication in formal and informal situations for almost a decade. Almost everyone agrees that networking events – the ones that require an awkward dance of meeting new people and getting something from them in a strained social situation, is the worst.
Yup. It’s the worst.
And no matter how bad we all agree it is, the networking event is not going to go away. If you are a professional, it’s part of your job. And it will be part of your job until retirement – when you will have to begin networking to find tennis partners. It’s part of my job too and even though I teach people how to network well, I find myself blown away by how intimidating formal networking events can be. For example:
On a rainy fall evening in 2015, I walked into a room with 500 other people with whom I was supposed to “network.” Like many other networking events, someone planned for there to be a room, wine and beer, and some snacks, but that was as far as the planning went. The conveners invited a bunch of people and evidently crossed their fingers that business development through networking would just happen.
While I have become used to networking events in academia – both within my university and at conferences, this was the first networking event I attended as a business person rather than an academic or artist. I was there to promote my new business, the Professional Development Practice Lab, including the live training and coaching services that I offer. Most importantly, however, my goal was to collect as many business cards as I could so I could begin to cultivate relationships with people who might buy my services or at least offer insight into who might buy my services or which networking event I should attend next.
I walked into the room and I got scared. Really scared. I looked around and my inner critic, Fran, started pumping my head full of her opinions about how I didn’t belong there, how cheap my business suit looked next to the ones the guys were wearing, what a fraud I was.
And that was the scariest thing, here I was in a room full of people with whom I wanted to share my great idea and I was questioning my right to be there. I thought I might die.
Spoiler: I didn’t die.
Two super heroes rescued me. The first was a woman, whom I didn’t know. She saw that I was too terrified to move away from the name tag table. She introduced herself and kindly said, “It’s hard when you don’t know anyone.” We chatted for a minute and I was able to find my secret confidence pose. I stood tall, took a deep breath, and uncrossed my arms. I took a moment to invite my inner critic to remember how useful these networking events can be. I reminded myself to draw on my acting skills, to pretend to be a confident person by choosing to stand tall, by choosing to speak loudly and clearly, by choosing to ask others about their work.
I spotted someone who was looking around for someone to talk to. I introduced myself. I asked about his work. I listened carefully. I connected his work to mine and he offered to introduce me to an engineer that he knew would be at the event. I implemented the Ask. Listen. Connect networking strategy that I discussed in this week’s podcast and I made two new contacts.
Then, another woman, whom I knew slightly and who will live forever in my mind as my very own Wonder Woman, caught my eye and threw me a big smile across the room. I walked over to her conversation pod and she introduced me to everyone she knew. I collected far more business cards than I had hoped. Since I was playing a solo version of the Networking game we are offering as a freebie here, I got to make an appointment for a pedicure the next day.
I beat my morning-after-networking feelings of insecurity and I followed up on every single one of my new contacts. Almost all of whom agreed to coffee or lunch meetings.
Best of all, I met enough people that at the next networking event I can be Wonder Woman for someone else. I’m actually looking forward to it, though I know myself well enough that I expect to have to pretend to have confidence for a few more times. And that’s OK. Because nobody outside of my head can tell the difference between me pretending to have confidence and me actually feeling confident. All I have to do is pretend. That’s all you have to do too.
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