The Socially Awkward Guide to Networking

7:03 AM

Meeting new people is nearly always uncomfortable. Walking into a room without knowing a soul is one of the most intimidating parts of adult life. Everyone seems to know each other. You put your shoulders back and take a deep breath. None of the groups appear all that welcoming, but several look like people you might like.

Here's the secret:  No one really likes networking. Okay, maybe Frank loves it. But most people hate it. It can feel smarmy and icky. It doesn't have to.

You have to change your goals. Instead of going there to Sell, go to Share. Selling is very push. Sharing is about pulling. Get others to share with you, and they'll ask you to share with them. You'll have a chance to talk about your new book or business, but only if you don't force it.

Gimmick / Talking Point

The best way to get in a conversation you don't know how to start is to give someone else a reason to talk to you. This isn't 100% foolproof. I find that looking a certain way, makes people want to say something to me. Now you don't have to go the full shebang and dye your hair blue (still the best business decision I ever unintentionally made), but you can do something.

I have a favorite necklace that gets comments every time I wear it. There are times when I want to wear those long blue beads that go so well with my hair, but, in a darkened bar, no one is going to notice the blues. So I put on my map knowing that it will get people talking.

It doesn't have to be jewelry, hair, or the like. My boyfriend loves to wear the Evernote tshirt he picked up at last year's Evernote Conference. He is in the startup community and tech industry and goes to those events. Every time he wears it, someone asks "Do you work for Evernote?" It doesn't matter that he doesn't, it started a conversation.

To Prop or Pocket

For many years, hands were the bane of my existence. What do you do with them? Stand awkwardly with them at your sides? Gesture stiffly like an inexperienced speaker?

They don't get in the way quite so much anymore. It's all about variations. If you can pretend you're talking to friends, you won't think about your hands. If you can't, try holding something: a folder with your manuscript, your purse, etc. Pockets are great too, but don't stuff your hands in your pockets the whole time.

Breaking in 

The dreaded entrance. It's the worst part: standing at the edge of a group trying to figure out how to break in. They are already deep in discussion. You don't know any of them.

You sidle up the group, aim for an opening and make eye contact with someone. If no one steps aside to make room for you, accidentally brush against one of the people blocking you. Brush. This is not roller derby. They will move. Apologize, smile, and stand there like you belong.

Talking points

Introduce yourself. "Hey, can I hang out with you guys?" "Mind if I join you?"

A group conversation has very important dynamics. Don't dominate the conversation, but don't shut up either. Ask lots of questions. The more questions you ask, the more interesting you seem. Crazy, I know. See when you sound interested in other people - even if their lives are as boring as yours - they feel better about themselves and then project those feelings onto you.

If you struggle to just jump in, find something to compliment. It's an age old retail trick to getting customers to talk to you. "I love your hair." "That's an awesome bag. I've been looking for one like that." Just try to follow up with a question. It's easy to toss out "love your necklace" and walk away. Instead, "I love your necklace? Where did you get that?"

"What brings you here?" Any event is a great topic in common. Maybe you are at the conference as a writer, but they could be an agent, editor, entrepreneur... Ask. "

So You Want to Talk About You

Know your elevator pitch and get passionate about it. Not too passionate. Don't scare them off. Your pitch should be 1-2 sentences. Not long sentences - just subject / verb / object and the like. Don't bore them. Don't assume they want to know everything from the germination of the idea to yesterday's analysis. Give tidbits.

Ask about them. Like I mentioned above, getting someone to talk about themselves is an easy way to lead questions about you. Once they've answered several of your questions, they will feel the need to ask you the same. Just remember, you don't need to share. If you only get a chance to ask them a few questions and something / someone interrupts, don't try to cram everything you are in one minute. Just exchange business cards, and promise to follow up later.

Trading Cards

The best way to get a business card is to have one. Otherwise, you might find yourself where I was several conferences ago... 

I remember the day. The panel was over and I had cornered her in the hall talking lightly about publishing and LA. "I'd love to chat with you about this more. Do you have a card?" She began digging through her enornmous purse in earnest. As the seconds ticked by, I offered the back of my notebook and a pen, "Or you could just write down your email, and I'll-" "Here it is!" she smiled broadly. It was a too long, odd looking business card. But hey, we're creatives. She wrote on the back with a flourish, handed it to me, and flounced off. "Thanks! I'll-" I looked at the card. She had autographed a bookmark. 

1)  Get yourself a business card. Vistaprint is my favorite. I will sing their praises because of the amazing customer support. You can get a small batch for $0-10 from a variety of places online. 

2)  Keep a pen on your person. As soon as you get someone else's card, write on the back the date, event, and 1-2 topics discussed. This makes followup a million times easier - especially if you're as forgetful as me. 

3)  Ask if they have Twitter if it's not on the card. It's a great way to make a quick connection. I like to tweet a few thank yous to the event and those I met late that night or the next day. 

Cut your losses

So you tried. GOOD JOB. Seriously. There is only so much you can do. If you put in your best effort and don't get anywhere, go home. Don't stick around trying to force yourself to enjoy it. You got 1 business card and had a few fleeting conversations? Five gold stars for you. Now, don't make yourself miserable.

Goodbye vs. Ghosting:  
Saying goodbye to new friends can reaffirm a connection. "Hey I'm heading out." You don't need to give an excuse. Unless they ask... "Gotta be up early. I'll tweet/email you," gesture with business card, "and we'll talk more about X." Halfhearted hug or wave. Leave.

But let's say they appear to be deep in a conversation you don't want to interrupt. Or they are 12 ft deep in people, and you just want out. Cool. Welcome to ghosting. Grab your coat and go.

Any other tips for networking? What tips and tricks work for you?

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