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Love-hate networking

Last night I found out what it means to love networking.

Okay, maybe I’m going a little too far. How about, I learned that networking doesn’t deserve the dread I’ve invested in it. In fact, it can be almost fun. I just need to remember a few simple principles.

I’m the kind of person who would choose a root canal over a networking event. Seriously. I have a really great oral surgeon who makes me laugh between bouts with instruments, and frankly, I would prefer that experience to a networking event that resembles some of the kind I’ve had.

But now I know there is a better way. Earlier this year I hung out my shingle as a sole practitioner of editorial services after decades of corporate and nonprofit staff positions. Whenever I attended a networking event for my employer, I had no real purpose other than to schmooze, show the company flag, and just get through enough hours until the boss signaled it was okay to leave.

Those occasions were marked by craven wallflower-ness. I would lurk by the food, or in the corners of the room like some cobweb, scanning desperately for someone I both knew AND wasn’t too intimidated by. After glancing at my watch for the third time in 10 minutes, I’d sidle up to one of my colleagues and begin talking about how much I hated networking and was it time to go yet.

It’s easier to understand the root canal now, right?

But after I started my business and accepted the fact that I really, truly had to get over this phobia, I did what anyone would do: I typed “I hate networking” into a search engine, and scanned the results for something that would help me in my misery. I found it in Devora Zack’s wonderful book, “Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected.” I completely tuned in to Devora’s insightful yet playful observations about the differences between people who love networking (e-verts, you can wave your hands and yell, “That’s me!”) and those who hate it (i-verts, feel free to raise an eyebrow in recognition—or not).

I was so enchanted by her insights that I resolved to do a better job. I downloaded her book to my phone, registered for a local small business association’s holiday party—one of Devora’s tips (if I don’t register, I’ll find some excuse not to go), and then forgot about it until the day of The Event. I woke up in dread. I thought about it all day. I was on the verge of bailing.

And then I remembered Devora’s book.

I opened to the chapter on The Networking Event Reimagined. Get there early. Hm, now there’s a concept. Instead of entering a room teeming with people, I could more readily approach the small number milling about at the start. Scan the nametag table to get an idea of who’s attending, and who you might seek out for connection. Another excellent idea I’d never considered.

Set a goal, even if it’s only two new connections. Ok, check. Two new connections, a low bar to be sure, but hey—training wheels. Survey the crowd before jumping in. Hand a plate to the person behind you in the food line. After a couple of interactions, take a break to regroup before starting another one. Ask questions, and listen. Know when it’s time to move on, and prepare a simple exit line.

It was like wearing an IFB in my ear, with Devora prompting me at every turn. Before I knew it, I didn’t have to think at all—I knew what to do. Something about my confidence seemed to make a difference, too. A few people approached me, which made it infinitely easier. I began to enjoy myself. I asked myself new questions, like, “Have I gotten the most out of this, or should I stay a little longer? Can I try something really bold, like approaching the CEO of a company that would make a perfect client for my services?” By the time I looked at my watch—for the first time—there were only 15 minutes until the band played Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.”

Suffused with good feelings and a sense of triumph, I paused outside the ballroom. I’d collected a dozen cards and knew my tendency to forget important details if I didn’t make some notes on each card. So I sat down at a little table and was engrossed in the task when I heard a voice say, “Are you actually making notes on the cards you collected?” I looked up into the friendly, if disbelieving, face of a woman who’d just made her exit from the ballroom. We hadn’t met earlier, but a quick glance at her nametag told me her business could offer some Venn diagram connections with mine. A little shyly, I laughed and said, “I know I’ll forget if I don’t do it now.” She replied, “It’s what I always tell my coaching clients, but nobody ever does it. You’re like an urban myth!”

And so I made yet another connection—useful, genuine, full of promise. And human. I’d forgotten that networking events are about human-to-human connection. I’d always approached them like someone who had been beamed aboard an alien craft for subjection to horrible probing experiments.

So all hail, @Devora_Zack, for rescuing me from a life of antipathy toward my fellow networker. All hail to the lively, helpful people at the business association’s holiday networker. I’m joining up this week. And all hail to the introverts out there who think this is beyond their ken. It’s possible to do the impossible if you just remember who you are and what you are about.

And be a little brave. After all, it’s not root canal.

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