There was a point in my previous career that I looked at my boss and said, “If you’re sending me to this conference with the expectation that I get 100 business cards from every networking event that they offer, then you’re sending the wrong person.” I’m pretty sure he knew that already, but it needed to be said.
On the Introvert to Extrovert scale there is no balance for me – I’m so far on the Introvert side I practically slide off. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like people, it just means that I have a higher need to balance my “people time” and my “alone time.” As far as I know, no one has ever said that the path to success is best pursued in silence and alone. Nor do I believe that the direct opposite is true – that success only comes to the loud and surrounded.
As a writer I have more flexibility in choosing how I spend my “people time.” Networking is still important, but I now feel more at ease to pursue it in venues that I enjoy. (Finding natural outlets has also taken the edge off of pursuing “networking events” purely as a hunter/prey exercise in the vein of “I will meet you and make you my contact, muahahahaha.”) To date, I’ve found three options that have been effective (by my definition): classes, clubs, and conferences.
DISCLAIMER: If you are looking for tips on how to get 100 contacts in five minutes, or even five days, this is not the post for you!
Classes: I’ve taken three classes at our local community college. Corporate and Continuing Education programs have the advantage of learning from community experts and not having grades. Typically, I appreciate the freedom of grown-upness that allows me to attend lectures, classes and events for the sole pleasure of learning. Classes are no exception. With the yoke of adulthood in place (albeit not firmly some days), I’ve also become better at learning. I ask more questions and appreciate the occasional input of classmates.
My primary expectation is to learn so when I admit that from three classes I probably stay in touch with two people, I’m not terribly disappointed. That isn’t a great number on a scale of networking output, as defined by most of the rest of the world, but perfectly acceptable for what I want. I will continue to attend classes as appropriate ones become available, and I expect that I will continue to meet a host of wonderful people. Sometimes the experiences and lessons of others spark ideas for articles, sometimes they make me grateful for the friends I have, sometimes they teach me lessons about my writing, and sometimes I call them network contacts. That’s fine by me. I’m wildly uncomfortable with the notion that accumulating names on an iPhone rolodex should be the natural extension of every pursuit ever made.
Clubs: I attended a meeting of the local chapter for the Women’s National Book Association and didn’t talk to a blessed soul. It was a fantastic event. I’ll be attending another meeting in the next month or so and will probably be getting a membership. The thing with introverts, or at least the thing with this introvert, is that relationships take time. I am the most unlikely candidate for walking into a room of friendly people and making chit-chat. In fact, I’m downright awful with the stuff. I can identify where a small-talk comment is appropriate but the minute I notice it, my brain blanks. Or, if I do come up with something, my strategy becomes a rapid-fire interrogation. “How’s the weather? Did you find everything okay? Is this your first time? What’s your blood type? Do you drive a Hummer? What’s your name? Do you have any children? How do you feel about composting?” It’s really not pretty.
So we better have either a focused topic to discuss (and a couple other people to complete the chit-chat formalities) or I need some time to find my niche and “make contacts.” In addition to the Women’s National Book Association (monthly meetings with focused topics), I’ve also been participating in a book club at our church. It’s been a great way to meet a small number of other church attenders from an otherwise large community, get some faith-based reading in, and maybe meet some new friends. It works because we have a focused topic, a time frame that doesn’t allow for many opening shenanigans, and it’s about books.
I’m also a member of the Charlotte Writers’ Club and have been for the past two years. I just signed up to be on the Board. Volunteering is another way I like to get my feet wet, and I find that when I have a specific purpose I do better relating naturally (meaning without needing a 20-question-drill) with other people in the organization. Volunteering brings the overall number of people with whom I’m interacting down to a more manageable level: think 15 people on the Board versus 100 people at a monthly meeting.
Conferences: Conferences are where I really…don’t shine. If the conversation mentioned at the beginning is any indicator, I’m a lousy attendee. The expos, galas, special luncheons, showrooms, and excursions make me nauseous. I like to walk around and absorb information, and I have fewer problems if someone approaches me, but the rest of it, all of it, is dreadful. Conferences have taught me about managing expectations. The conferences I used to attend could only be held in certain cities because they demanded so much in the way of accommodation – thousands upon thousands of attendees – but I still considered it a reasonably successful venture if I got one or two contacts.
The market for freelance writing conferences and even some of the regional writing conferences are much smaller so I attend to learn and try to challenge myself to practice traditional networking. It usually involves a thirty-second transaction with someone on a very easy topic, but if I get their business card and they take mine, I consider it good. Conferences can also be good sources of information for contact down the road. Maybe I didn’t meet the person directly, but mentioning our common participation (in a non-creepy way) in an email introduction can help establish a common bond.
The two biggest lessons I’ve learned from my experiences in all three are: set your expectations and stop thinking of every other person as a potential “contact” to be collected – you are not required in any statute of professionalism anywhere to learn the names of every person at every event you ever go to. That means figuring out how you best meet people when you do meet people. For me, that’s one or two at a time, over an extended period of time, and preferably with an obvious common bond. Practice the traditional method occasionally at conferences.
These approaches won’t bring fistfuls of business cards (though, these are also good locations for that approach), but they can keep introverts sane and comfortable with the idea of networking.