Who’s afraid of networking?


Not me. Not anymore.

We established last time that I’m an academic (semi-retired academic, if one can be semi-retired at my age.). So when I was thinking about starting The Pocket PhD, I did what comes most naturally to academics. I started reading everything I could get my grubby little mitts on. And I came across The Well-Fed Writer.

In the book, Peter Bowerman offers some great advice for new freelance writers that I have put to use, advice like how much to charge, how to write a bid letter, etc. But there was one chapter that frankly scared the ever-loving sh*t out of me: “Cold Calling: No Cold Sweat, Just Cold Cash.” As an introvert, who once tried selling Cutco knives (and pretty much only succeeded in selling them to myself), the idea of cold calling nearly had me curled up in the fetal position rocking in the corner. But I read the chapter (while taking a lot of slow, deep breaths) and started the process of talking myself out of the fear.

Full disclosure: Since reading the book, I’ve decided I don’t need to do any cold calling (yet). Yay! It helps that my brilliant business coach thinks cold calling would be a waste of my time. You could say, Gina of Gina & Company Consulting, had me at “f*ck cold calling.”

Now I would be lying if I said my sweaty palms didn’t influence this decision at all. Still, there are so many better ways to successfully network besides cold calling. And it’s true that the original version of Bowerman’s book was published in 2000, which means it was written in the 90’s. You remember the 90’s don’t you? It was that magical time back before we didn’t get out of bed until we had checked email and Facebook and Instagram and the weather on our phones. So, it’s fair to say networking has evolved.

Despite all of this though, one thing that Bowerman says in that terrifying chapter really resonated with me: “Get this or fail: Assuming you’re a competent [check], reliable [double-check] writer, if you pursue this business, you’ll be a professional marketing a valuable and needed professional service to other professionals. Period.” It’s amazing how quickly that shift in thinking of myself as a telemarketer desperate to sell some overpriced knives to thinking of myself as a professional with a truly valuable skill put me more at ease.

In reading and re-reading that sentence, I realized a lot of my biggest fears about networking were really all about my self-perception. I was projecting my worst criticisms of myself onto perfect strangers.

  • I was afraid people would know I didn’t have enough business experience.
  • I was afraid I would say something stupid.
  • I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep a conversation going.
  • I was afraid I would come off as pushy or somehow alienate people.
  • I was afraid I would feel like the outsider.
  • I was afraid others would feel pressured to do business with me.

But you know what?

  • People don’t know how much business experience I have unless I tell them and it doesn’t really matter anyway. I’m not applying for a job. I’m offering them a service. If I deliver what I promise to deliver, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve been doing this work for two months or 20 years. And I do deliver.
  • I don’t say stupid things. By “stupid thing,” I mean something offensive or insulting. I might say something that I realize later I shouldn’t have said. But as long as I say other smart things, those small mistakes don’t matter as much.
  • Keeping up a conversation has never been one of my strengths. But this gives me an opportunity to show off my listening skills. Networking events attract extroverted people, so it’s actually super easy to listen and contribute where it feels most natural to me.
  • On my worst day, I couldn’t be pushy. I have a hard time asking politely at McDonald’s, when they forget to give me my French fries (and I really love French fries). I’m friendly. I smile and laugh a lot. It’s just how I am.
  • I have rarely felt like an outsider in the business world. Quite the contrary, I have been pleasantly surprised by how generous and welcoming everyone has been.
  • Consider the times when you have felt pressured into buying something. These are likely situations where you were not really expecting to hear a sales pitch (like at the mall when you walk by the kiosk selling sea salt butter or whatever). The great thing about networking events is that the whole purpose is to find business contacts. Everyone arrives knowing that everyone will be trading business cards and talking about what they do. It’s really low pressure.

I can’t promise that anything I’ve said will magically take away your fears or work in absolutely every networking situation. My networking experience is limited to gatherings of small business owners or association meetings. But I can’t think of a single networking event where it would help to think of it as a foreign activity. Remember that networking is all about building relationships and building relationships comes instinctively to human beings. Also, remember that building relationships takes time. It’s rare that a single connection made at a single event will lead immediately to a contract, but if you stick with it, eventually the right people will find their way to you.

All of this is a (really) long way of asking:coffee do you want to meet me for coffee?