So much of success is still based on who you know – I didn’t truly grasp this until my 30s and avoided networking like the plague. In an article for Business in Vancouver last year, I confessed my “dirty little secret” that I was the “ultimate impostor.” Behind feeling that I was unworthy of being at the table, didn’t fit into male-dominated industries (construction and technology) and was undeserving of recognition for what I had achieved was a fundamental shyness and lack of confidence.
I dropped out of the University of British Columbia’s commerce program to avoid public speaking and ended up with a psychology degree instead – a direction I figured might help me delve into the root of my own insecurities. When I became an entrepreneur and started my own companies, I was intensely afraid to take on speaking engagements and anxiety-ridden each time I had to attend a networking function, yet I knew as the public face of my company I had to do it. This is when I set out to overcome my fear of public speaking and networking. Now I speak on average at least once a week, in addition to attending multiple networking or business events. I call myself a functioning introvert (someone who re-energizes by being alone).
Here are some of the insights and tips that helped me get to where I am today:
•Understand that many people are uncomfortable networking or public speaking (even those who seem like they are masters at it). Maybe you feel like you don’t belong, don’t fit in or won’t know anyone. Know that you are not alone in these fears – many people feel insecure.
•To understand your own feelings of impostor syndrome, read my article at impostorsyndrome.ca and Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women – also available on Audible if you like to listen to your books while stuck in traffic or as you commute. Recognizing these feelings is the first step to challenging and overcoming them.
•Start by attending friendly events like a local Meetup with other professionals in your field or an event organized by the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE, fwe.ca) or Women’s Executive Network (WXN, wxnetwork.com), both of which are welcoming and inclusive. The Women’s Enterprise Centre (womensenterprise.ca) has a great series of Mindset Mastery events that help to build confidence.
•When you get to an event, scan the room for those on the sidelines. Find someone who looks approachable, then go and introduce yourself. A simple “Have you been to one of these events before?” will get the conversation rolling. You’ll both be relieved to break the ice and you might even gain a cohort for the remainder of the event.
•Focus on the other person – striking up a conversation can feel uncomfortable, but for many women, so does talking about themselves. Asking others questions is a good way to connect, warm up and build confidence. Ask questions about their business, why they are there and what they enjoy about the group.
•Reach out through technology first – look at the attendee list in advance, if it’s available, and connect with people a few days before the event via LinkedIn or Twitter. By exchanging a message beforehand, or simply following or liking their content, you can make that in-person conversation feel less intimidating. By the time you arrive at an event, you’ll feel like you already know some of the attendees – plus, you can break the ice by referencing something they have shared.
•Use a Dale Carnegie trick I learned when I took the Dale Carnegie program many years ago. When you first meet people, look them in the eye and shake their hand. Repeat their name after they say it. If it isn’t clear, ask them to spell it or repeat it. Make an effort to memorize it by associating their name with an image. I learned 50 people’s first and last names in one three-hour session and never forgot their names over 10 weeks. Twenty-five years later, I still remember the full name of the partner I did the exercise with.
•Ask a mentor to take you to an event and introduce you to people. If you don’t have a mentor, ask a more senior colleague or a well-connected friend. You will learn a lot and shed some anxiety simply by being the sidekick at a couple of low-pressure events.
•Become a mentor – acting as a mentor through FWE and WXN over the past seven years has taught me how to open up and share my experiences with younger entrepreneurs and business people. Now I’m much more comfortable at networking events when asked about myself.
•Feel the fear but do it anyway – often I dread going to an event but then end up having a good time. Remember that FEAR is False Expectations Appearing Real. The anticipation and fear are worse than reality.
If you’re an extrovert (someone who re-energizes by being around people) you may not think you need any help, but here are a few tips for your consideration also:
•Stop pitching – don’t go into an event pitching and trying to sell your products or services. But if asked, have a 30-second elevator pitch ready and rehearsed so it naturally rolls off your tongue.
•Avoid drinking if you can, or be mindful not to overdo it. Don’t forget to put down that drink during photo opportunities because you never know where those pictures will get published and shared.
•Be genuinely interested – I highly suggest reading the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. In the book there are numerous tips on how to better relate with people based on “human relations principles.” You can learn to be interested in the people you meet in a genuine way. Look people in the eyes when you talk. Actively listen rather than shaking hands mindlessly while you wait to say what you want. Be fully present and don’t continuously scope the room for the next person to speak with.
•Making conversation might be easy for some but can be a real struggle for others. When you get to an event, seek out the person on the sidelines who is not talking to anyone. Take a few minutes to help that person feel comfortable or to give them a warm start by introducing them to people you know.
•Network without expectations – go to an event to build relationships and be happy to grow your network without the intention to sell your wares. People buy from those they know, like and trust. The sales will follow in due course.
Networking is a powerful tool that can help advance your professional career and grow your business. With practice and perseverance, it will begin to feel more natural and even enjoyable. As you get the hang of things, remember that it’s OK to take a few minutes to regroup and re-energize if you need it, and to extend the same kindness to yourself that you would to others. You’ve got this! Happy networking.
Cybele Negris is a serial entrepreneur, CEO and co-founder of Webnames.ca (Canada’s original .ca registrar), director of the Royal Canadian Mint, speaker and mentor.