The uncomfortable truth about networking and how to get better

Does the thought of attending and networking at a major education conference fill you with anxiety? It probably depends on whether you fall into the introvert or extrovert personality type, but the uncomfortable truth is that even the most seasoned conference attendee can find the process of putting yourself ‘out there’ … #awkward. In an era where it’s never been easier to engage with people and build professional networks, does face-to-face networking still matter? If we assume that it does, how do you avoid the small talk, make meaningful connections, achieve personal growth and extract return on investment?

According to Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out Networking, “The fact that technology has made it easier to interact with people across great distances and time zones actually makes face-to-face interaction even more valuable.” Here are 7 ways to embrace the uncomfortable truth about networking and how to get better.

  1. No one enjoys walking into a room where they don’t know a soul: Okay, there might be a few big personalities who do, but the vast majority of school conference attendees are just like you – uncomfortable, sweating, feeling awkward and wishing someone would approach them first. So, have a few conversation starters prepared, something like: ‘Which sessions are you most excited about?’, ‘What podcasts are you listening to right now?’ or ‘How does this conference compare to others you’ve attended?’ – take a deep breath and dive in.
  2. Change your mindset: According to Harvard Business School professor, Francesca Gino, “People shy away from the opportunity to create new connections because networking makes them feel inauthentic and physically dirty.” Professor Gino recommends changing your mindset to focus on your professional aspirations, stating that people who focus on their professional aspirations, network more frequently and experience decreased feelings of ‘dirtiness’. Understand ‘why’ you are attending and keep the focus on your skills growth, professional development and career advancement.
  3. The real work starts with some pre-work: Understanding who the other conference attendees are is critical. Are they likely to be other school marketers, peers and colleagues, or will they be school leaders, executives and principals? Once you know this, you can create a list of people you’d like to meet or sessions you’d like to attend. Depending on the audience, consider sending an introduction email, prior to the conference, to arrange coffee catch-ups during the breakout times. During the event, get involved in sharing via the official conference app, and any Facebook or LinedIn groups. While it might seem counter-intuitive if you’re an introvert, don’t discount any opportunities to sit on a panel. You will be contributing to a topic that you’re an expert in, and people will likely seek you out.
  4. Timing is everything: According to Clark, you should consider two things when choosing which session to attend. “A session should fulfil either a content goal, meaning the talk will be educational, or it should fulfil an interpersonal goal, meaning you want to meet or support the person who is presenting,” she stated. Think about where you want to invest your time and plan accordingly.
  5. Control the environment: If the thing that makes you most uncomfortable is walking into a crowd, try creating an environment where you are more comfortable. Skip some of the conference refreshment breaks and head to a nearby café with a smaller group of people. Or book a table at a restaurant and pre-invite a group of likeminded people to join you for dinner. Try to include a mix of people you know and people you would like to know better.
  6. Strengthen existing relationships: Successful networking isn’t only about meeting new people; strengthening existing relationships is just as important. The opportunity to catch up with existing contacts outside of work can be invaluable. Just don’t spend all of your time hanging with people who you know and are comfortable with. Set some boundaries – like having some existing lunch or dinner plans arranged – so that you can get out and meet new people.
  7. Take some time out: Conferences, particularly multi-day ones, can take their toll. Clark suggests that introverts need to “manage their energy differently from other people. You need to know when you’re on the brink.” Focus on self-care and wellbeing. If you normally exercise at the end of your work day, skip the pre-dinner cocktail party and hit the hotel gym, have a swim, or get out for a walk or run. Remember to eat well, stay hydrated and get plenty of sleep.

The best thing about conferences is the people you meet. Remember that everyone is anxious, the majority of people you will meet are really nice, and by focusing on what you want to get out of the conference and tweaking the format to meet people on your terms, you’ll find you enjoy the experience more than you thought you would.

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