Networking, it’s a bit Marmite. But love it or hate it, it can be absolutely invaluable to your career, personal development and for opening up opportunities in all areas of your life. This message has resounded throughout my career, but until very recently I didn’t really believe it and most definitely resided in the ‘hate it’ camp. So what’s changed?
A month ago I was excitedly reading the Business Analysis Conference Europe 2019 (#BA2019) agenda and, as is my usual response to networking events on conference agendas, I got to ‘Networking Break and Exhibits’ and felt something approaching dread, already thinking of ways to find a quiet, isolated space to sip my coffee during those 20 minute interludes sitting between the ‘good stuff’.
And then, as usual, I remembered all of the advice given to me by career coaches, personal development gurus, line managers and online motivational speakers over the years and reluctantly resolved to fully embrace it. Usually this resolve lasts right up to the point where I’m faced with a room full of complete strangers and have no idea where to start, who to talk to, or what to talk to them about. In short, the point where I get shy.
It also doesn’t help that I’m an introvert. Anyone who has ever met me may be surprised by this statement. I don’t come across as what many perceive to be an introvert; I’m ‘gregarious*’, outgoing and energetic. I love public speaking and having an audience. But it’s a myth that introverts always like to sit alone in a corner with their own thoughts and avoiding other people. What is true is that whilst extroverts gain their energy from other people and social interactions, introverts gain their energy internally. Externally-facing activities such as socialising and presenting take a great deal of energy from introverts and as such they require time and space to reflect and recharge. Therefore after an hour of gregariously engaging and participating in workshops and conference talks, I desperately need a bit of time and space to reflect and regroup, a luxury that using the time for networking doesn’t afford.
So I approached #BA2019 with little hope for my plans to mingle. But somehow this conference was different. I chatted to people at the networking breaks, had some fantastic conversations about everything ranging from neuroscience to tea shops and made some friends and a number of genuinely valuable connections from both a social and professional perspective.
Here’s how #BA2019 helped me overcome my fear and loathing of networking and my advice for embracing networking at conferences when it’s really ‘not your thing’.
#1 Make use of the interactive activities
Good For: People who are feeling shy or who are new the a professional community
The first breakthrough for me was that #BA2019 offered a lot of activities in the breaks; a treasure hunt, a selfie zone, and many welcoming ‘membership’ stands, run by organisations such as the BCS and IIBA. These gave easy situations and ready-made topics for talking to other people, even if the conversation was as inane as “I’m just here for your treasure hunt QR code and to eat your free chocolate”. Even with simple conversations like that, I felt involved and engaged and a part of the community. These activities provide a good warm if you are feeling a little anxious about getting into ‘proper’ conversations, or if you are new to a community and feel a little like you are sitting on the fringes.
#2 Be authentic and find a friend
Good for: People who are concerned about networking feeling ‘fake’
For me networking has always conjured visions of men in shiny suits with perfectly coifed hair, smiling at each other with fake smiles with super-white teeth, exchanging flashy business cards. Perhaps I’ve watched American Psycho or Wolf of Wall Street a few too many times, but the point is that I always viewed it as being somewhat artificial and ‘fake’.
I’ve attended networking coaching where I’ve been advised to ‘find the people in the room that are most useful to you’ and ‘don’t waste time on someone if it becomes apparent they’re not useful’. Indeed I’ve been on the receiving end of such networking philosophy, when I’ve been cut off half way through a sentence as I’ve presumably been deemed to have no value to someone’s professional development.
Whilst this approach is perhaps understandable if you are at a dedicated networking event (some of which carry a fairly hefty price tag for admission) and have a very set goal for your networking – perhaps seeking an investor in your business or building a client base – it can feel a little ruthless in a conference setting and, for me, this philosophy really doesn’t align to my values. I’m a ‘people person’ and if I click with someone, I want to chat to them. I may want to talk about the latest business analysis technique, digital trends or business challenges, but equally I might want to chat with them about Harry Potter, festivals or travel. Either way I’m not comfortable with effectively ‘discarding’ them simply because they’re not able to give me a ‘leg up’ in my career.
On the subject of Harry Potter, I once spent an entire 2-day conference talking almost exclusively to one person during all of the breaks, because we bonded over my Deathly Hallows earrings during the morning coffee break. When I relayed my experience to my coach, they replied that I was ‘doing networking wrong’ and had ‘wasted the opportunity’. It transpired however that I ended up getting quite a bit of freelance writing work from my new friend. There was no indication of this at the event, I just liked her, we got on and it was good to have a friend to spend the day with. Serendipity is a fine thing.
At #BA2019, I ended up in a similar situation, but this time the person I ‘made friends with’ was someone I had seen talk at #BA2018 and had contacted after last year’s event. We had connected and talked digitally throughout the year, but not yet met in person. At the event, I approached them, introduced myself and ended up talking at length, sharing ideas and just ‘clicking’. They introduced me to other people in turn and before I knew it, I was networking like a pro!
The takeaway from this is to do networking your way, but be authentic. If you’re naturally a social butterfly and like to try to meet everyone in the room, that’s great. If this feels too superficial and you prefer to build deeper relationships with one or two people, then that’s great too. Building one strong relationship is certainly better than being so daunted by the idea of ‘working the room’ that you don’t speak to anyone and that one person could just well be the one that holds a great opportunity for you in the future. And if not, well, you’ve made a friend. It’s a win-win situation.
#3 Prepare before the event
Good For: Working out who to talk to and what to talk to them about
One of the difficulties I’ve found in networking is working out who to approach to talk to. Choosing someone at random from the crowd and then wandering up to them seems very daunting, not to mention knowing what to talk to them about, without sounding like I’m reeling off an elevator pitch or making small talk about the weather.
At #BA2019, I already had a couple of contacts from #BA2018 who I knew would be at the conference, so I was actively looking out for them and had some solid interactions and conversations that I could build on. Take a look at the attendee and speaker lists in advance, or monitor activity on online forums and groups relating to the event you’re attending. There may be someone speaking on a subject you are particularly interested in, or who you recognise from other events. Perhaps you’ve engaged in discussion on a forum or on LinkedIn. Reach out to these people ahead of the conference, maybe suggest a chat over a coffee in one of the networking breaks or if you prefer, leave it open-ended as ‘I’ll come and say hi if I see you at the conference’. You now have a contact and a genuine, authentic reason to connect in person at the event.
Another way to make connections is to talk to people on your table in interactive conference sessions. You already have something in common, which is that you’ve chosen this session. Ask them why they chose to come to this session and see where it goes from there. You then also have a familiar face that you could approach during the networking breaks.
Chances are conversation will unfold quite naturally, but it’s always worth doing a little preparation beforehand and deciding what you want from the networking elements of the event. Do you just want to make some like-minded friends? Are you looking for a new job? Someone to collaborate with? A mentor? To share your ideas? It can really help to have a goal in mind and prepare a few bullet points to cover if you meet someone new and they ask about you.
#4 Backchannel online
Good for: People who are feeling a bit shy, introverts feeling low on face to face energy
Most events have a Twitter hashtag or handle and some, like #BA2019, have an app and a LinkedIn group. These are usually very active during the event, with delegates live-posting their thoughts and observations on the sessions and themes. These online platforms are a fantastic way of engaging in real-time discussion with fellow delegates during the event and catching up on the highlights of other sessions that may have been missed due to clashes.
For those who are feeling a little shy, or for introverts needing some recharge time, these platforms can provide an excellent means of networking and engaging with the community without physically talking to other delegates during the breaks. And in the spirit of Tip #3 above, discussing ideas virtually might just give you a connection that you’re inspired to find in person to continue your discussion!
#5 Strike a balance
Good for: Introverts
I’m fully converted to the benefits and value of networking. I’m not sure I’m going to pitch my tent in the ‘love it’ camp just yet, but I really do believe there is a huge amount of value in doing at least some face-to-face networking at conferences and other such events. It can be tiring and it can be daunting, but my advice to those who tend to avoid it is to push yourself to try it. If you do find networking energy-draining, be aware of when you start to feel tired and need some alone-time, although also be honest with yourself whether it is genuine burn-out or just avoidance. You may find it useful alternate how you use the breaks, perhaps using one break for networking, then the next for recharge time. If you’re feeling shy, remember that many people are at the conference for this very reason and no one is going to think it strange if you strike up a conversation.
I was lucky to find such a great conference to boost my networking skills and confidence. The Business Analysis community is welcoming, passionate, driven and inquisitive and that really helps when reaching out to new people.
I believe that there’s no rulebook for successful networking. It falls to the individual to find their own way and approach it in a way that works for them. For some it comes extremely easily, for others, like me, it’s shrouded in awkwardness and anxiety. I also believe that it’s worth persevering. Reaching out, taking the leap and making friends and new connections can hugely increase the value of the conferences and events and can lead to great opportunities and experiences. Even if it’s just after-conference drinks in the pub next door.
*One of my former line managers wrote this in my annual review. I’ve adopted it ever since.