Sunday 22 September, 2019

Networking: Drunken Corporate Speed Dating?

Networking: Drunken Corporate Speed Dating? Or Humans Beings Making Human Connections?

Networking: Drunken Corporate Speed Dating? Or Humans Beings Making Human Connections?

Mentoring a Master’s student has made me surprisingly reflective about the advice I give.

Especially when I have a complicated relationship with taking it myself.

Particularly the value of networking. In my last chat with the international business student I finally got her to open up and show off more of her personality. After hearing what she’s really passionate about, I suggested she seek out networking events. I suggested she figure out exactly what she wants to be memorable for as a person, before she attempts to be a memorable candidate in her job search. (Begs the question are the two one in the same?)

But how much of that advice had I taken? And in what way was I leading by example?

Luckily I had a tailor made test case in my back yard. This was my 3rd Bizz Buzz Bucks networking event in my area and I’m considered by organizer Leigh Frost to be somewhat of a regular. But this morning I spoke more mindfully to the new faces and tried to pick up the threads of conversations I’d had with other regulars. The results were a mixed bag.

Leigh Frost is the Regional Partner of Business Buzz Bedfordshire & Business Buzz Buckinghamshire

First, it is an informal group and there’s both laughter and serious business talk in equal measure. We are guided by Leigh to do more than exchange business cards and to make concrete plans to meet people offsite after the event. And there’s free brownies, coffee & churros with hot caramel. What’s not to love?

Two evenings before I was part of a robust weekly chat among Twitter’s #FreelanceHeroes. The topic was the different types of networking events available and what people’s preferences were. Hands down the laid back, ‘chat to who you like, when and if you like’ approach appealed to both veterans and newcomers. Sitting in circle in a constrictive business suit making a formal presentation won few popularity points. But it led me to wonder if these formal chit chats weren’t simply speed networking “lite” and lacked the urgency needed to drive business partnerships and inevitably put money in pockets.

Human Connections

So I tested my theory with the marketing manager of a newspaper named Lisa. I’m a writer, she runs the marketing for publications in my patch. It seemed an obvious first choice. From the minute she opened her mouth I knew we’d spend more time exchanging origin stories than planning pages of copy. She’s South African and about to join her daughter’s wedding party in my native Barbados. The beauty of our home countries and our kinda ballsy, take no prisoners personalities fizzed to the surface like the cocktails readily available at the trendy tapas venue in Milton Keynes’ theatre district. We brainstormed about how I could visit the authentic South Africa on the cheap and I gave her insights on how to enjoy Barbados off the beaten tourist path. We eventually got around to how I could write for her newspapers but I’ll always remember her thick accent, sparkly eyes and sense of adventure.

Then there was the fellow content creator who went directly into the sell the minute I walked in the door. No harm, no foul. He was direct, affable and clearly interested in what I had to say. I was interested in him too and I’ve since reached out on LinkedIn. But there was something about going from “hello” straight to pitch that was more ground gears than greased wheels. I chastised myself after for being a touch dismissive. But it was a teachable moment in “right approach; wrong time”.

Rounding out the morning I sidled up alongside fellow freelancer and regular Bhavini of http://www.b81designs.com. We bond over coffee and weight lifting and she’s tossed me a few contacts for website development in the past. I may or may not have interrupted a pithy sales pitch between she and the waify blonde in the oversized jacket. But these are the few events where deftly easing your way into someone else’s conversation is both expected and encouraged. Pleasantries exchanged, brownies consumed, and we did a little check list of what we had both accomplished at that morning’s gathering. For us both it was more professional reassurance and personal branding than “dolla dolla bills”.

The Fear Factor

As Bhavini and her husband walked me back to the car in an ominous summertime downpour, I got to thinking, though, that these events are not nearly as easy for some as they are for us. I remembered meeting a woman at another similar event (this one more boozy and in London) who’d clutched her white wine and white-knuckled it through the introductions until she’d drunk the equivalent of a bottle. Her social anxiety was palpable and a real barrier to getting to know her. I have deep empathy for the nervous and anxious, as you often see that before you see how truly talented they are at what they do. Her business card, and later LinkedIn profile, read like a heroes’ sandwich of professional qualifications and dream jobs at big, change-making companies. But you’d struggle to remember her for more than being ‘the one stood in the corner all evening with the pale, frightened expression’. Makes a good case for having a networking buddy I think. Taking along someone just as nervous or someone who is gregarious and outgoing to run interference. It might also make a case for location scouting beforehand. Finding the exits, locating the rest rooms, giving the cute bartender a ‘pre chat up’ for when you need an escape route. The flip side to this however is, if it takes all this for an ‘informal networking chat’, why not just put this energy into being good at your work and letting the work, speak for itself through other, non-face to face interactions (social media being the obvious choice here).

To Card or Not to Card

Finally, the matter of business cards. To have them or not to have them. Is the linked in QR code the new business card? If you decide to have them how much — especially as a sole trader or freelancer — should you spend on them? How much personal branding needs to go into the design, colour, font, wording etc?. I must thank Jonny from FoxWylie for creating the most memorable discussion on the topic. Along with a bright burnt orange colour, Jonny’s business card has the feel of old newsprint with the robustness of an acrylic titanium blend. Note to self, do not try to put this card through the shredder. He believed that the quality of his card, moreso than the information it provided, told the greatest story and made him more memorable. A card of that colour, with minimalist wording and little likelihood to bend, let alone break, says ‘the holder of this card means business and is not to be forgotten or dismissed’. I’m prone to agree. Yet as I type this I glance at the modest sized box of business cards I’ve accumulated over only six months of strategic ‘networking’ and can only really trace four or five solid business leads from them to money in the bank. Interestingly, the folk who I’m likely to reach out to for a coffee (or let’s be honest, a large glass of red wine) I don’t remember their business cards, nor do we chat because they have mine. We connected as people — rugby lovers, passionate content creators, coffee aficionados.

 Is this the new business card?

So in my notes preparing for my next chat with my mentee, I’ve laid out a rough plan:

Be your best self.

If you’re not yet sure who that is, take the sun-kissed abandon of summer to start the process of finding out.

Then be that person and find other people interested in that.

Be interested in other people for it’s own sake.

Don’t view everyone through the prism of potential employer or money-maker. It becomes obvious and can be a turnoff.

Quality over quantity. In reality we only truly connect with one or two people at time. Trying to have a deep meaningful connection with a dozen people in an hour is unrealistic and unnecessarily stressful (unless you’re delivering a Ted Talk maybe?)

The work will speak for itself. But first you have to speak for you.

*For the avoidance of doubt, networking with me is most effective over a curry or a shot of @mountgayrum Tweet me pictures of your fur family at @kat_isha and we will be friends for life… or at least until the rum runs out.

Katrina Marshall is a Barbadian freelance journalist living and working in the UK. Corporate Communications, Journalism & Op-Ed writing. Superpower? Story teller. For more of her work, visit https://medium.com/@katrinamarshall or find her on twitter @kat_isha

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