‘It’s all who you know.’ Is there a more discouraging sentiment when you’re starting out in your career? After finding out that your arts degree is in fact worthless, I can’t think of a more sinking realisation than the one where you realise connections, not your First Class Honours degree or last slave labour internship, are what catapult you further up the ladder.
After a few years of feeling all ‘why me?’ about growing up in a small town and therefore having no ties to the all-important Dublin-centric media, I started to realise that the personal connections thing works both ways. If I could just bump into people and make a good impression…that was an opportunity to make the connections I was so lacking. Sounds easy, right?
There’s just one problem: I loathe networking.
Or maybe just the word networking. Call me naïve but it implies such a level of ‘I’m only being nice to you so I can get something out of you’ that I could vomit. But…pretty much all of my career as a writer has happened because I got talking to someone at a party or was squished next to them at a boozy launch. So I know that getting out there and meeting people WORKS.
As Sophia Amoruso says in her badass coffee table book Nasty Galaxy, opportunity does not come calling when you’re lying on your bed dropping your phone on your face. No matter how much manifesting you do, you have to put yourself out there. So…I have had to deal with my networking fear.
Whether you have social anxiety or just really are not feeling the tingle to mingle (I hate myself) here’s my tips for making networking less of an anxiety-inducing horror:
First off, last week I read this great article in New York magazine about ‘psychological Halloweenism’. The theory is that when faced with a situation or project you should pretend you’re say Hillary Clinton or Jean Michel Basquiat and tackle the situation that way. The researchers found that channelling someone else made the participants more creative. I’ve kind of been practicing something along those lines when it comes to work events. When you’re heading into a social situation you’d rather avoid, have a confidence hero in mind. Think Beyonce, Stevie Nicks, Caitlin Moran – someone whose confidence you can channel when you’re feeling awkward. Fake it ‘til you make it and all that.
Tell yourself ‘I can always leave after an hour’. Vogue editor Anna Wintour leaves parties after 20 minutes and stylist Rachel Zoe says you should never be the first or last to leave a get together. Chances are I won’t actually leave early (especially if it’s a work do) but reminding myself that I’m not being imprisoned at the event for the rest of my life and can make a hasty exit if my social anxiety kicks in is a good way to calm my dramatic ‘If I just get hit by this car, I’ll get out of going to this event!’ urges.
This sounds like the absolute worst nightmare for the socially anxious but, like ripping a band-aid off, I find just making eye contact, smiling and saying hello to literally the first person you see when you walk into a room (unless he’s your awful ex) is a great way to calm the nerves. You don’t need to be all Bob Benson about it but just going straight in there and striking up conversation with one person makes the whole ‘what if I have no one to talk to?’ dread die a lot quicker. All that matters is that you’re talking and not standing against the wall on your phone, dying inside at your own awkwardness. Aaaand the person you speak to might just be a great contact – you never know!
I hate small talk but I prepare 5 questions to ask whoever I might end up seated next to. Avoid the dreaded ‘and what do YOU do?’ and instead go for questions that will hopefully get the other person to open up a bit so you can find some common ground. Think along the lines of ‘Are you originally from Dublin?’, ‘have you got any holiday plans this year?’, ‘how do you know the host?’ etc. Stuck for words? Download Danielle Laporte’s Conversation Starters app (hat tip to Gala Darling’s Radical Self-Love book for that one).
Ask them questions about themselves. People love nothing more than talking about themselves and according to this Harvard Business Review study people were a lot more receptive when their newly introduced companion seemed genuinely interested in them…by asking questions about their life. So, if you want to avoid those awful awkward silences before your networking pal glances around the room hoping to ditch you, keep asking questions.
Listen. Amanda de Cadenet, host of amazing series The Conversation (if you haven’t binged on this series, drop what you’re doing – the Jane Fonda one is my favourite) told Who What Wear her number one tip for being a good conversationalist is “Listen! Most people don’t listen when they ask a question… Know that there are natural pauses or silences and it’s OK not to fill every quiet moment.” Great advice.
If the thought of walking into a room full of strangers and ingratiating yourself makes you feel like projectile vomiting, forget large scale networking and meet people for coffee instead. One-on-one engagement is usually a million times more effective in forging a rapport than at a large event where you’re one of a crowd of people wearing misspelled name badges.
Be authentic. It’s easy to get into an ‘aaargh! I need to talk to the President of the company or I have wasted this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!’ panic and put pressure on yourself but the easiest way I got over my networking anxiety was to forget that I was meant to be networking. I stopped obsessing over who I should be impressing and, even if I got stuck at the worst table, I focused on making conversation with the people around me anyway. There’s nothing worse than introducing yourself to someone and seeing them immediately lose interest because they think you can’t help with their career. Don’t be that person. Even if the guy next to you says he’s just an intern, you never know where you’ll bump into him again and what job they’ll be in then. It’s better that he remembers you for your genuine interest and not as the girl who spent the whole dinner gazing over at the more prestigious table, desperately angling for an introduction, right? Focus on the person, not the job title.