Anyone who knows me well enough can tell you about my very real aversion to most conventions, among them, the traditional networking event. Something about the prospect of going into a room full of strangers— not necessarily to have fun per se— but to just chat about what we’re up to professionally and maybe exchange contact information, unnerves me. These events can often begin to feel tiresome when the meaningful exchange of ideas intersects with the need to self-promote, preach, or sell something. I’m not into that. Enough of my own discomfort. For everyone from the new grad to the seasoned professional, these types of events can truly facilitate the foot-in-the-door that you need so badly and can, more importantly, serve as inspirational springboards. That being the case, I realized that rather than wait for the nature of these events to change, I had to actively seek out thoughts that would make them more bearable. So here are just a few ways I learned to get past my networking anxiety and make the most out of each one.
Do Research and Connect Early
When walking into conventions, conferences and the like, be sure to familiarize yourself with the guest speakers, session leaders, and other people who have already RSVP’d. There are lots of ways to do this, social media being the most direct and innately comfortable since it’s not face-to-face. Shoot a quick Tweet to the leader of a session you plan on attending or try to connect on LinkedIn with someone presenting a project. These are sure fire ways to prevent some of the eye-to-the-floor meanderings that can make these events so anxiety inducing.
Don’t go Looking for a Job
Now, networking events aren’t the place to go look for a job, but they are a good place to connect with new people who are employed at some of your target organizations. In fact, you could use the time to scout out if what you think about a place and what it really is like are the same things. Figure out who you want to talk to and take that time to just ask them questions like “How do you like working at blank?”, “What’s the hiring process like?”, or “What projects are you working on right now?”
Remember Everyone There is Looking to Help
People at these events are really anxious to share knowledge. Don’t be afraid to go up to anyone and tell them what you’re up to. Have a cool idea for a project? Then bring it to someone there. This is especially the case when you’re a new grad. The economy and the workforce is developing in a way that we could never have predicted just 20 years ago. Couple that with the fact that a majority of millennial’s support themselves using multiple streams of income, the people there won’t be shocked if you show up with a new idea or a new take on an old idea. The number of people who go to networking events and conventions with little to no experience in their field is matched only by the volume of workforce veterans who are eager to help you out.
Stay Active the Whole Time!
There are a few more layers to this one so I’ll break it up into two categories; stay digitally and physically active. This can be a tricky concept if you’re like me and have a real aversion to being seen on your phone while people are talking, or if you’re the type who enjoys occasionally retreating exclusively into the mind from time to time.
Staying physically active doesn’t mean doing sprints from table to table, frantically trying to talk to every single person in the room. It just means being present and not being afraid to take up the space that you naturally take up. Anyone can do this, even the wallflowers. I see you over there — feeling like the center of the dance floor is just a little too pompous hmmm? Maybe a tad inartful? Well look to your left, and now your right — chances are there’s someone else on the wall thinking the exact same thing! Go find a way to talk to that person about why they’re over by the wall too. It’s not all business. So many people go to networking events and conventions feeling as if when they don’t have something hyper-technical to say, that they should just stay quiet. Don’t start to lean up, hedge, or hide when you don’t feel like you can say anything. Instead, think of a question to ask, or about something you and another attendee might have in common. Being physically active in the space is more mental than anything. Your body will always be there, but you have to use your thoughts in order to project yourself into the space. The concept of ‘projecting’ carries over very directly into staying digitally active.
When I say digitally active, I really mean that you should keep in mind that almost everyone in the room has a phone in their pocket that they look at on average of 110 times a day. Beyond that, a majority of the people you’re going to meet at these functions use social media in some capacity. Live Tweeting is a pretty specific and unobtrusive way of putting yourself out there and actually crafting a story around time spent at the event. Crafting a story around anything you do is a technique they’ll teach you in journalism school, but that I actually think is applicable in a wide variety of situations. Say you’re sitting down and listening to a truly compelling presentation — take your phone out and record a piece of it to share online. Repeat this process a few times, and shout out or tag the cool people you meet. Other social media savvy attendees will see that content, and that’s something you want because content within the capacity of a shared event is the grounds for a STORY.
Story is everything, it’s what builds the image that you want to be reflective of everything you find compelling. Ultimately, telling a good compact story about the time you’ve spent anywhere will attract more people (and opportunities) to you. Put emphasis on the term compact. Some of the most successful artists I know only post to Facebook once or twice a week, or month. The moral of the story isn’t to repeat what they do how they do it, but that engagement can consistently be high if the relevance of the content can be high as well. Now while not everyone who follows you on social media is going to find your content from the “National Association of Pastry Chef Professionals” relevant, your content is just a hashtag away from a platform where its relevance can’t be understated. Most convention speakers and performers, in general, understand that sharing things digitally is a huge part of how information works in 2017, so you should be using that as a way to make connections with people doing the same thing.
Ultimately, going to conventions and networking events is about getting inspired. As much as people go there to meet other professionals and build their careers, they’re going to get their imaginations going as well. It’s not just about the nuts and bolts of finding a career path, but about finding inspiration and the tools to craft your story as well. It’s easy to feel anxious when faced with the prospect of networking, but the line between having a valuable and transformative experience and one that leaves a little something to be desired can be so thin. These are the things that work for me. Find out the things that work for you too! Be sure that you’re always putting together a checklist of the things that can help you overcome the very natural anxiety that comes from just putting yourself out there!