By John R. Worsley
Networking is a dreaded word for many of us, especially introverts, and particularly for in-person events. Networking online is its own world, and generally easier for introverts since we can usually choose when to interact and when not to, so we'll focus on in-person networking here – but there's plenty of carryover.
It's vital to be clear and honest with yourself about why you seek to network... notice I didn't say "why you want to network"? If you're only doing it because you feel you should, say because speakers and bloggers keep telling you to, that matters. Our feelings about networking are perhaps the single factor that affects the outcome the most, and it's hard to alter something we don't understand.
The good news is that it's possible to overcome a "should" – if you can identify one or more reasons you want to, and act on those wants instead. For instance, I could focus on the genuine enjoyment I get out of hearing people talk about their writing, and choose to network because I want that; the "should" is still there, but it's not in charge.
Set realistic goals for yourself
Be realistic about how and where you struggle socially, and set realistic goals based on that assessment. Maybe meeting one new person at a time is all you can manage – that's okay! Pay attention to how you feel after networking events, and adjust your expectations for future events; our efforts have to be sustainable for our mental health.
Help is out there
There are plenty of articles, blog posts, and videos offering networking tips, and perhaps the best way to sort through it all is the same way we deal with feedback on our writing: look for commonalities rather than reacting to every single item, and look for what resonates with us. The truth is that we're all different, and there's no one magic set of advice that will work for everyone.
Change your mind, change your experience
There is, however, one thing we can probably all do to make networking more fun and effective: change what we think it is. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that when we set out to network, we're in it for us, to get something we want or need – a reference, a key contact, a reader, an agent, a gig, etc.
Let's flip that around. Approach meeting a new person with the question "what can I give you?" Starting with the goal of giving instead of getting makes a world of difference: it eliminates or greatly reduces the desperation we can feel; the other person doesn't have to endure talking to someone who only wants something from them; it does something deeper to build a connection with the person than just chatting might. And more!
Find a way to help
"But how can I help a stranger?" Fair question! As you start to get to know someone, you may well naturally come across areas where you have something to give, be it advice, a resource, or simple commiseration over a shared struggle. And ultimately, our friendship – or even amiable acquaintanceship – is something we always have to give, and something that is usually appreciated. Even if we don't end up finding a way to help someone, that attitude will still make a difference.
One more factor we'll touch on here is: follow up! At the time, exchange contacts, make a note – do something to record who you met. If you get contact info, be sure to reach out later in whatever form makes you most comfortable. You might be surprised how many people don't do that! You may or may not make a lasting connection with someone, but it sure won't happen... say it with me... if we don't try.
Even if you don't get any contact info, the person's name might be enough to find them on social media and connect there. However you follow up, don't let too much time pass. You want to build on the incipient connection, and once someone's forgotten meeting you, that opportunity may be gone.
A final note
Lastly, if social anxiety or other mental health concerns present significant barriers to networking, consider finding a form of therapy or counseling that works for you. There truly is no shame in that, no matter what messages you've received to the contrary – and it'll likely benefit other areas of your life.
Networking at the Willamette Writers Conference
There are so many opportunities to network at the Willamette Writers Conference, both in-person and online. A good place to start is our Writer's Fair on August 4 from 6-8PM. It's a chance to meet new friends, check our writing organizations and tools, and make connections that will continue throughout your writing career. The event is free and open to the public, so don't hesitate to join us!
Our year-round calendar includes many events to connect, share, and collaborate.