Networking. If you’re like me, you hate the word, possibly even fear it. If you’re like me, you can’t help but feel a little skeevy when you try to do it. If you’re like me, you’re looking at networking all wrong.
I can say this with the utmost confidence because I am an expert. I have spent the last several years sucking at the art of working a room. You may have seen me at a recent Austin SCBWI or Writers’ League event, not that you’d recall. You were probably paying attention to one of the many Central Texas writers and illustrators who don’t suck at networking.
Believe me, I was too. Which is why you’d think I’d have realized something sooner: I underwhelm because I have been going into potential networking situations only thinking about what I want. Of course I feel manipulative when I try to connect with a new person on those terms.
Unfortunately (for me, anyway), I’ve started to withdraw from networking situations. Instead of enjoying getting to know all of the interesting people I see at writer conclaves, I hang back. Worse, I’ve started to sneak out early or find a reason not to attend at all.
But I’ve got a feeling that’s about to change.
A recent confluence of events has convinced me to try and alter my wildly unsuccessful networking model. First, I read a great article on networking in the Poets & Writers March/April issue. P&W contributor Brian Gresko not only did a nice job of delving into why so many writers consider networking “icky,” he helped me start to reframe my entire view of it. Read the article, aptly titled “The Art of Networking: How to Get What You Need Without Selling Your Soul,” for yourself. You’ll see how he likens networking to the regular day-to-day interactions of coworkers. His basic point is that writers rely upon the good will and support of their fellow lit professionals just like any other group of colleagues. Just because we don’t share a physical work space, doesn’t mean we don’t need each other to succeed.
The second serendipitous event grew out of Gresko’s article when I mentioned it to my partner.
She’s not a writer, but she makes her living freelancing in several fields. And she’s great at networking. We talked about why.
Basically it’s because she goes into those hotel meeting rooms (or restaurants, or bars, or wherever) with curiosity as her agenda. Instead of entering the conversation with her needs hanging like a conference badge around her neck, she asks questions to get people talking about the things that interest them. She doesn’t worry if they go ‘off topic.’ At the very least, she and her new acquaintance part with pleasant impressions of one another. No pressure, just a friendly conversation.
Often though, my partner’s curiosity will highlight an opportunity to help that person in some small way. Maybe she knows someone her new acquaintance wants to meet. Or maybe it’s as simple as recommending a good off-the-beaten-path barbecue joint. Whatever. If she can find a way to do some little, unsolicited favor for her new connection then she’s started a relationship with them. And that’s the whole point of networking, right?
Speaking from my own awkward experiences, I see now that my few good networking interactions have occurred when I accidentally followed my partner’s example.
Which is why I am resolved to do it on purpose next time.
So look out if you’re going to the upcoming Writers’ League of Texas conference, I just might ask you what you’re working on.