Guest blogger: Michelle Z. Donahue
As a freelancer, I’m pretty much the epitome of the reclusive gnome: I occasionally emerge from my home office, blinking in the light, to sample the fresh air outside and exchange actual spoken words with people instead of e-mailing them. Recently, this has even included going to several networking mixers for associations I’ve joined, which involved putting on reasonably nice clothes and a healthy cloak of courage.
It’s not that I don’t like people — I love having a great conversation. I mean, I’m a journalist, and I’m always down for a juicy story. But put me in a room full of people with nametags and an expectation to schmooze, and I seize up.
What I imagine will happen: link up with an editor I really admire and learn what they’re looking for in a pitch. What actually happens: Room-cruising sharks end up glomming onto me, a very hit-or-miss approach for having a good time.
So how do you make the best of one of these networking events when you don’t get out much to begin with, let alone put your best foot forward?
For starters, definitely don’t avoid the mixers. I doubt any freelancer would debate the importance of a healthy network, especially given the outsized role that online social networks now play in modern life. Those in-person connections are more valuable now than ever. Fortunately, there are people happy to advise hapless hacks like me, and I tracked one down at Poynter, a place where folks are in the habit of helping journalists do their jobs better.
Described by his colleagues as one of the most socially capable people around the office, Ren LaForme not only helps organize events, but formed a group that meets monthly in Tampa Bay with the express purpose of connecting journalists with digital designers and developers. During work hours, he builds Poynter’s online education courses.
“Meeting a person face-to-face is still the best way to accomplish anything,” LaForme says. “And I say that as a person who does e-learning for a living.”
Here are a few other tips LaForme offered that might help you have a great conversation at your next mixer, even as you ponder rapidly draining your wine glass in panic.
Set small goals. Before you even show up, decide what you want to get out of the event. Make a goal to talk to a set number of people—say, three or four—and then you can leave, or just hang out by the bar and see what happens. “But try not to attach yourself to the hors d’oeuvres for too long,” LaForme says.
Icebreakers work. When LaForme walked into his 10-year high school reunion, he found everyone converged at the bar near the door, glued to a spouse or friend. Finishing his drink, he approached a classmate and dropped a line he ended up repeating all night: “This whole thing is awkward and super weird, right?” Tapping into an unspoken observation can help defuse the tension of the setting, and allow for more natural conversation to flow. “Don’t be afraid to milk it for what it’s worth,” LaForme says.
Practice some boilerplate. I try to head off talking about myself by asking tons of questions, but also because I tend to be genuinely interested in other people’s success. But the inevitable question comes: so what do you do? “Be ready to answer with a story about an article you enjoyed writing, an interview you really enjoyed or a particularly great time you had working with an editor,” LaForme advises. “It’s less about trying to fit what you do into what they do, but showing what you’re into.”
The audience is rooting for you. We can’t all be Robert Downey, Jr.-smooth, but sometimes there’s no way to slide into a conversation than to gently butt in, possibly by asking a question or contributing a point under discussion. “The secret is that those people who are all talking together are really happy to have someone to talk to, and don’t have to butt in,” LaForme says. “But they want you to succeed. Come in with confidence, and contribute as fast as possible.”
Don’t curb your enthusiasm. If you really want to wow that editor, show them you care about what you do and be ready to draw upon subjects that excite you. “Editors are looking less for topics, and more for passion,” LaForme says. Asking lots of questions never hurts, either—it demonstrates that you’re an expert listener.
Everyone is on edge. That’s the big secret: most people at networking events are probably queasy, too. It just goes against instinct to shoehorn a connection, and Wi-Fi just isn’t reliable enough to Google-stalk everyone you’re about to talk to. “I’m uncomfortable every time I go,” LaForme says. “But it’s provided me with so many great career tips and moves that I just try to push that aside and have a good time.”
Michelle Z. Donahue is a Maryland-based science and technology freelancer who thinks that writing third-person bios is almost as tough as jumping into a conversation already in progress. She has written about robotic scooters for babies, dogs that hunt for whale poop, and coffee brewing in space for outlets including Smithsonian and Popular Science. Follow her on Twitter at @MZDonahue.