Continuing from last week’s look at offline methods as more along the lines of “creating opportunities rather than hunting specific jobs”, I wanted to have a look at offline networking – at events, conventions, etc.
(Just a sketchy illustration today, because Time. Sorry!)
I think most of us have come across advice on the necessity of networking, making connections, etc. It can seem a bit of a task, something very intentional, different from just meeting people who work in your field…and I know for some it can conjure images of awkwardness and anxiety more than anything else. So I thought I’d look at a few concerns about networking at events…if there’s something not here that you’d like me to address, feel free to let me know in the comments!
I think a lot of people, when they hear the word “networking”, hear “go forth and talk to strangers!” and think that they would rather stick their head in a bucket of electric eels. I’m not super shy, but I do get this, and know the feeling of “how the heck do I start a conversation with this stranger out of the blue?”. My main message throughout this is going to be to find your own networking style, something that results in some new connections with interesting people in your industry, and pushes you a little in a healthy way, but doesn’t cause you misery and super anxiety.
If approaching a stranger in a convention bar and starting a conversation is a baffling and terrifying concept, don’t do it. That’s fine. There’s plenty of gentler ways to try and meet some new people. Finding/tagging along with friends who you know are sociable is a good start, as they’ll probably introduce you to others. Often at events the bar or cafe is busy, so you could try and make a habit of sharing tables. Pick a couple of people who look friendly, and ask if they mind if you share their table/if that seat is free, and consider that your job done. After all, you have your drink, your convention program, plenty to occupy you on your bit of the table if conversation doesn’t happen naturally. If you give yourself just one, do-able task (eg. Asking to share a table) that you do regularly, you can put yourself in a position to have conversations and meet people, without stressing yourself out about it if it doesn’t happen, because you already met your challenge. Way to go!
Some conversations I just don’t really relate to, and can’t think of anything to add. I’m also perhaps not the most loud/assertive voice in a conversation, and have had plenty of experiences of that thing where you’re standing with a group of people but someone’s shoulder is just in front of you and you’re not quite in the conversation. (And then of course sometimes I do interject, realising I’ll have to be a bit more conversationally assertive to get a word in, and realise I’ve just cut someone off…). Anyway! Again, I think a no pressure policy is a good thing. You can excuse yourself, or drift away to maybe join another conversation. It’s allowed. You don’t have to feel like “arghblrlk networking must converse!” As above, some of my nicest conversations with strangers have come through grabbing a seat by just a couple of strangers sharing a table rather than trying to join a big conversational group including ccupied by so-and-so who I really admire. You can’t force it after all.
On loud, crowded spaces
Oh man, this is my big networking weakness, because I hate loud, crowded bars where can hardly hear and barely move. In that kind of situation, I honestly cannot wait to get out of there. Sadly most convention bars, parties, etc. are like this. (A con I went to a couple of years ago had an evening drinks reception for guests and exhibitors, separate from the big party, and it was the best thing ever, with lots of wonderful conversation. Sadly, the next year it was moved to a loud, crowded public bar. I would absolutely love to see more of the former at cons, as running tables we barely get to see each other and have those great conversations about our work, the industry, etc.)
As in the shyness section where I suggest setting yourself an achievable task, I have one for myself in this category: Just show up. That’s it. Generally I get a drink as a good “you just have to stay while you have this drink” goal, but if it’s crazy loud and crowded I might not even do that. I just need to show up.
That puts me in a position to meet people, or spot friends or acquaintances and get a chance to chat to them – but it doesn’t make it a requirement. Now and then, it’s just not happening. I can’t see anyone I know, everyone’s in solidly knotted groups, whatever the case. No worries. Other times, I end up staying longer than I intended, and that’s great. It’s an achievable goal for me – if this area’s a challenge for you, find an achievable goal for yourself that opens opportunities but won’t put unnecessary strain or anxiety on you.
(As a side note, writing conferences and events are awesome for this, as most events are for writers/people involved in writing rather than fan events, and take place at a venue with a a cafe so you’re almost guaranteed to find a friendly conversation to join at any time of day. Sort of wish we had comic events like this, for comickers!)
On being a salesperson
I have a few friends who do Networking with a capital N. They are always “on”, scouting the bar for industry people they want to meet, always ready to talk about their projects, and not hiding why they want to meet you – they want to introduce you to their work. And they’re good at it – confident but not obnoxious. I can’t knock it if it works for them! Seeing people like this can make one think this is what you’re supposed to be doing.
But I think everybody has a different networking style. I favour a soft/sociable networking approach…I’m not so much networking as simply looking to meet and converse with people in my industry. And that’s essentially what networking is, but I kind of think of it more as small-n networking. Thinking of it like that can make it seem a lot less onerous!
Think about the goal of networking. It’s to grow your network, that web of people who are connected in various ways. Those people who might be working on something years down the line and go “hey, Sally’s work would fit really well with this”. So of course, that does involve people being aware of your work. And those friends I mentioned above, the ones who are real salespeople? They probably do have a higher hit rate of people leaving a con or event aware of their work. But hey, perhaps the softer method has a higher rate of people leaving the con with an idea of who you are as a person, as a professional.
Come prepared. I always have samples of my work with me, and give a business card to whoever I’ve chatted with when I leave. Most of the time, “what do you do” will come up in conversation, and often following that I’ll get a chance to show them a bit of my work, again naturally.
I have a couple of policies – and they’re just mine. Yours may be different!
-I want people to see me as a professional peer. So I try and equally avoid fannishness (with creators I really admire – though hey, nothing wrong with a genuine “it’s lovely to meet you, I really enjoy your work!”), and salemanship.
-I generally keep my samples to myself unless asked. You may wish to be a bit more proactive. But I feel like after a long day at a con, the last thing an editor wants is more portfolios shoved under their nose. I always leave people with a business card – if they liked me and like the work on the card, they’ll look me up.
-Ask about others work, be interested in them!
TL:DR : Don’t stress! You have your own networking style and needs, and that’s fine. Try and give yourself some challenges so you don’t just talk to the same five friends at every con, put yourself in situations where conversations can happen – and then let them, when they do. Be professional, be friendly, be interested, and your network will grow!