How I Became a Better Networker
Networking used to terrify me. This often strikes my friends and family as odd because I'm actually one of the bubbly, loquacious type of introverts. When strangers talk to me in a line or on a train, I have no issue engaging in a conversation. I could even have a pleasant talk with a puppy if I spoke the language. What is it about networking that scared me so much then? Initiating a conversation. That's something I could never do.
Here's the thing. When it comes to initiating conversation, I used to feel like I was immediately responsible for making the conversation the best a conversation can be. My list of anxieties was all-inclusive: How do I approach someone at a networking event without feeling awkward? What should I say to them to break the ice? How do I keep the conversation continuing beyond, "Nice to meet you"? What if the person didn't enjoy talking to me? What if I asked a dumb question? What if the person worked in a field that I knew nothing about?
I'm finally done dragging my feet. The new year calls for a change, and I'm all up for the challenge. Last month, I signed up for two networking events, did my homework, went to the event, and guess what, nailed both of them! At the NCATA (National Capital Area Translators Association) post-holiday brunch two weeks ago, I talked to a dozen people, got leads on professional development, put my name up for serving on the board, and walked away with a mentor who stopped and showed me around the Dumbarton Oaks on the way home.
Two weeks later, I found myself back in the School of International Service atrium of my alma mater American University for an alumni-student networking event. I talked to six people and came home with one of the most precious things I could ever ask for: recognition. I've been feeling insecure about going back on the campus since I graduated. I was undergoing a "legitimacy crisis" because, conventionally speaking, you don't go to one of the nation's top international relations schools and end up being a translator. Don't get me wrong. I love being a translator and I take immense pride in my profession. I was just really uneasy about sticking out like a sore thumb in a crowd of government employees, think tank researchers, and nonprofit activists.
Since I signed up for the challenge, I went to talk to people anyway. I did encounter one student whose attention started to float away from our conversation when he realized I wasn't a kickass connection he could make use of. Strangely, I didn't feel all that bad staring at him as his eyes scanned across the room for a more viable target. Maybe you need your worst fear to be realized so that you can cast it away.
The "recognition" moment occurred when I met an alumnus who's been having a tough luck breaking into the international relations field for a career. I asked what his intended career specialization was and was given "Anything, really" for an answer. One of the most important lessons I have learned so far is that specialization matters. Yes, I can probably flip open a dictionary to get the words right for an engineering project, but I'll never be able to deliver the translation with the right voice. From a marketing perspective, you want to be the go-to person in one subject matter instead of competing with pools of candidates in every single field. The alumnus's eyes lit up after I shared my experience. He was newly determined to cultivate a specialization and thought maybe it'd be helpful to explore the translation track after having been so narrowly focused on international relations.
It is said that happiness lies in being needed and feeling helpful. If the post-holiday brunch event was about gaining, then the night at American University was about giving. Believe it or not, I even ended up giving networking tips to one of the students I talked to. Having my selfish altruism realized was gratifying and energizing, but I could not have gained the courage to go there had it not been for my success at the first event. Here's what I learned from my networking month adventures:
1. Network with people in your tribe (as a start).
I felt really comfortable meeting up with fellow translators and interpreters at the NCATA brunch. Same career and same professional organization—we already have a lot in common. This naturally makes starting a conversation much less intimidating. Are you a translator or an interpreter? What languages do you work in? How did you acquire your second language and your specialization? The conversation evolves naturally as we learn more about each other's backgrounds and swap tips on specific issues. Having this one successful experience was all I needed to bust my fear of networking.
2. Find a "hook."
As a new member going to a first event, the more people I get to know at NCATA, the better. I realized "I'm a new member / This is my first event" was a great hook. Remember how I used to worry about looking awkward while approaching people? Not this time. Saying hello to everyone as a new member is a natural thing to do. Feeling justified in initiating a conversation, I confidently walked over to each core member I identified throughout the event and introduced myself. No awkwardness at all.
3. Have openers, exit phrases, and follow-up questions in stock.
A conversation has three parts: a beginning, a meaty part in the middle, and an ending. Prior to the networking event, I did my homework to master three corresponding types of phrases to make sure I could start a conversation right, keep the conversational ball rolling, and gracefully say goodbye before moving on to the next person. I found this article by Jessica Taylor extremely helpful in preparing my openers and exit phrases. As for keeping the fire alive for the actual conversation, what works for me is being an attentive listener and asking follow-up questions like "Why is that?" "How come?" or "Could you tell me more about...?" Also, as a courtesy to others, when you are asked a question, try to provide vivid details so that the other person has enough material to work up a follow-up question for you, too.
4. It's not you. It's not them either.
After having had conversations with 18 strangers this month, I now understand this one simple truth: The final ingredient to a satisfying conversation is the "spark." Well, now that I think about it, the spark is the final ingredient to any kind of satisfying human relationship; networking is no exception. As long as you're being friendly, courteous, and professional, if the spark doesn't fly, don't force it. Smile, say goodbye, and move on. Don't be offended if the conversation doesn't go well. Don't speculate if the other person was having a bad day. There is no blame game or guessing game to play. It's just something that happens.
5. Nurture the new relationship.
Networking is not a game of collecting business cards. It's a process of getting to know someone and fostering a longstanding relationship with that person. A new relationship needs nurturing. When you have just had a wonderful time talking to someone, exchange your business cards and stay in touch. If you talked about attending some future event together, don't forget to follow up. If someone really made an impression on you, tell that person so and offer to buy him/her a coffee to learn more. If you see an article that the other person might find helpful, forward that link.
Through this experience, I've learned that fear, as well as insecurity, is often rooted in misconceptions and groundless concerns. Once I let go of the anxiety to be perfect and instead embrace my humanity, the task is no longer quite so daunting. By not taking things personally, I emanicipated myself from the cocoon of self-consciousness. As new my mentor often tells me, "When you are freaking out, just ask yourself, 'What's the worst that could happen?'" Once I've seen that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, what once seemed a terrifying experience instead becomes a fun adventure.