The Courage to Network

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I picked up the phone to listen to the new voicemail.

“Hi, Are you available on May 21 for a speaking engagement in Kona, Hawaii.”

My first thought was, which one of my friends is playing a trick on me??  But I went to the website, and sure enough, it was legit!  Someone was willing to pay me to go to Hawaii to speak.

I was beside myself.  My partner and I immediately started making plans to stay extra time.  I spoke to a friend who is a meeting professional to be sure I had exactly the right angle on my “Assertive Communication” talk to fit the needs of the meeting professional who would be attending the event.  I wrote a fantastic keynote, had my marketing materials and follow up communication plan set, and was ready to go to Hawaii.

I was told that the conference organizers like it when the speakers participate in the entire event, sharing meals, attending other sessions, and generally being a part of the overall experience of the meeting professionals in attendance.  I knew this would also help me build relationships with them so hopefully they would think of me when they needed a speaker for a meeting! This meant *cue ominous music*  NETWORKING!

Webster’s definition of “Networking” is “the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business” but my more accurate definition is “awkwardly sticking your hand out to a stranger and hoping they don’t reject you like Susie Mahoney did in 7th grade right after you got braces and were already feeling self conscious.”    Come on, admit it, networking is uncomfortable.

And when you break it down, there are several mechanisms in your brain that fight against this stranger talking.

#1 what did mom tell you?  “Don’t talk to strangers.”  This was pounded into my brain for my own safety.  Now the opposite is trueIf you want to build a strong professional network, you have to go not only talk to strangers, but approach them first.  This is not what I was trained to do.

#2 we are inherently self-conscious about what other people think about us (7th grade braces mishaps or no), especially when they’re someone we would love to do business with.  It requires us to stand tall and confidently and present ourselves in the way we want to be seen.  But we never know how other people see us, so we can just….hope that we look professional, sound cool calm and collected, and say intelligent things and don’t have spinach in our teeth.  That’s a lot to hope for!

#3 as this is all happening, there are always escape routes illuminating all around you, and in my case at this Hawaii event, I had my own hotel room and a whole beautiful resort full of other options, and outside of that, a gorgeous amazing island full of gorgeous and amazing options that were exponentially more attractive than walking up to strangers with right hand extended.

BUT, I wanted to capitalize on the opportunity, and I wanted the conference planners to be pleased that they hired me, and so I need to put my big girl pants on, and do the thing I didn’t want to do but was good for me.  #thiscouragisadulting.

There were 3 meals, an excursion and 2 cocktail parties, and all 6 required a little personal pep talk.  “Go, be yourself, smile, let them do most of the talking.  Everything will be ok.”

The pep talk helped, but what helped more was to have an objective.  I walked into each networking opportunity with an objective.  For one of the meals, it was to collect 3 testimonial videos from people I had connected with after my presentation.  One, it was to walk away with 2 business cards of possible prospects. Just 2.  Another was to find out the challenges 3 people have in their business.  Some were related to my business directly, some were just connection objectives, but having an objective helped me be focused in my networking efforts, and have a “why” to combat the fear that came with talking to strangers.  I have good news for you.  It worked, and generated some great conversations, some great connections and hopefully some additional speaking business.  (hopefully in Hawaii!)

So if you’re like me, and networking makes you break out into a cold sweat and suddenly remember all the watch batteries that you need to change, figure out a realistic objective.  Get 10 business cards.  Meet one realtor, or a specific person you’ve heard about and been wanting to meet.  Maybe you ask about leadership challenges they’re having so you can follow up with an article you’ve recently read.  Or schedule 2 coffee dates for further conversations with relevant people.  Those objectives will give you a purpose for being there, so you’re not just fumbling around feeling awkward.  Then, once those objectives are met, either you’ll have settled into the party and you can continue to enjoy some great conversations, or you can get out of there and go back to less awkward pursuits like washing the bugs off your car’s headlights.

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