I am crap at networking

I went to the ExpressionEngine Roadshow today where I learned a couple things, was disgusted with EllisLab for their cop-out non-presentation, and awkwardly stood alone in the corner (or, worse, the center of the room) between speeches while people around me did this thing called “networking”.

I am such crap at networking. I’ve only attended two conferences so far (An Event Apart and EE Roadshow), but at both I came to the conclusion that the presentations aren’t what the thing’s about. Both times only about half of the presentations were remotely worthwhile, while the others were either senseless cruft or so bogged down by the speaker’s fear of public speaking and/or inability to write coherently that by the end I just wanted to bang my head into the nearest wall a few times. Clearly we aren’t here because web developers are charismatic individuals with a flair for speech-writing.

So I can only assume that it’s the times in between, the meal times and parties, that people find the real value. Those times when you’re expected to wander around, get to know your fellow developers, swap business cards, and talk shop.

Sadly for me, I have no interest in approaching complete strangers and introducing myself. I’ve never had this inclination, which is something that puzzles me. Engage me in conversation, and you’ll find I’m not socially awkward: I am, in fact, an intelligent individual with a good sense of humor who loves interacting with people. Observe me with a group of my friends or family, and you may think me highly extroverted. Yet drop me in a room full of strangers, and I clam up instantly. I know these people are passionate about the same things I’m passionate about, but unless one of them seeks me out I find it hard to think of things to talk about.

I was thinking about this on the bus ride home (I left early, having deduced from fifteen minutes standing around alone that I wasn’t going to get anything out of the after-party, particularly since I don’t drink and thus could not take advantage of the free alcohol), and I’ve finally realized the problem: I’m a presenter. A performer. I’m damn good at giving a speech and then talking to people about it afterward, but no good at being just another member of the audience, milling around and networking.

Problem being, of course, that in both the EE community and the web development community as a whole, I’m a nobody. I haven’t written any books, or published any extensions, or been hired by Happy Cog so it’s unlikely anyone is going to invite me to speak anytime soon.

Guess it’s time to either start the difficult personal work necessary to overcome my awkwardness at initiating social encounters or start submitting topic proposals to my favorite web conference organizers.

3 responses to “I am crap at networking”

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  1. Justin M. says:

    I can relate. I feel like I’ve always been a people person, but typically in one-on-one scenarios and typically with people whom I already know. Networking with strangers didn’t come naturally.

    I kind of found my footing when it came to networking in early ’06, before I quit my full-time job and started freelancing later that year, and actually found that it went hand-in-hand with what I was trying to do, which was strike out on my own. As I got further into it, I got better at networking.

    I’ve since considered it one of my freelancing strengths that I’ve been able to “network” with people, using the parlance that so many others prefer, while not feeling like I’m actively networking.

    Since I feel like I have a tough time relating what works for me to others, since that would directly correlate to how they would run a business consisting of “me”, I’ll instead provide a couple tips that I’ve picked up which will hopefully help. The first is an old standby that I actively think about, while the others I’ve really just tried to formulate here and now.

    1. You can be far more effective taking interest in two or three people than in trying to make ten or fifteen people be interested in you. Ask questions; find out what they are trying to do. It might work out that you are in a position to help them in those goals, or at the very least introduce them to someone else in whom you’ve taken an interest who could help them along. In other words, take interest and be a connector. It will pan out in the end. People like to talk about themselves, so if you take an interest, you will leave a favorable impression of yourself on them. I don’t know how many times I’ve connected two people who end up working together. Some of those relationships have come back around into gigs or long-term work; the rest just haven’t… yet.

    2. Try to talk about your projects, as often as you do at least, in terms of problems that you’ve solved or attempted to solve that are common across projects, or types of work, or people. For example, problems like making technical tools and processes available to non-technical people. I find this kind of thing when it comes to web content all the time. Maybe not applicable in your case, but you can share commonalities with someone who, say, is trying to build an iPhone app for a non-technical profession. Commence talking about the shared challenges.

    3. Seek out others who don’t appear to be networking or wanting to network. Even if you don’t end up talking shop, you can talk about what else brought you there (the travel, visiting a friend while on the trip, getting away from the normal grind of not attending conferences, etc.) Everyone likes to talk about something if you dig a bit.

    Hope these help. In the end, you really have to find what works for you, but I think it’s crucial to a solo shop, even if you are moonlighting in addition to a full-time job, to be able to network. I actively try to avoid the business card exchanging scene, or the drink-buying scene, or the project boasting scene. Just find what works for you while letting you be you.

  2. Ian Beck says:

    Thanks for the tips! I think probably what I should do is come up with a list of canned conversation starter questions before-hand, and commit to seeking out people and asking them. Initial contact is always the hard part for me.

  3. Justin M. says:

    That’s a good idea. I usually go with ‘What brings you to X conference?’ or ‘What kind of work do you do?’

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