This past Saturday night I attended my 35-year high school reunion – Millbrook High School in Raleigh, NC. The organizers picked a wonderful venue, food was plentiful and we had a decent turnout. Considering, more than 25 years passed since I last attended a reunion this was going to be a true test of (an aging) memory and an opportunity to practice what I preach about networking.
Being an introvert, large crowds drain me (as evidenced by the two naps I took on Sunday), but I was determined to catch up with as many people as I could during the event. My darling husband assured me he’d be fine and encouraged me to go mingle. Being an extrovert, he was in his element. He’s never met a stranger so I sallied forth leaving him to make his way as I conquered my own apprehensions. Truth be told, I would have been fine hanging with him all night, but that defeated the purpose of going.
What I found is (like this is going to be a huge revelation) networking is difficult and takes effort, lots of effort – especially when starting with little common ground, other than a shared experience 35 years ago. When I go to local TweetUps, attendees have Twitter and a love of social media in common. When I went to the Career Management Alliance (CMA) conference earlier this year, participants shared a professional and a membership bond. When I manned volunteer booths for animal rescue organizations, it was easy to talk with complete strangers about animals. While each of these examples demonstrates networking opportunities, they come with an inherent commonality absent from a class reunion.
We have a wonderful alumni site for our class and many of us reconnected via Facebook in the past few years, but other than those few connections, we were all flying pretty much blind as to what we had in common any more. Armed with what I know about networking, I met my classmates with a firm handshake or a big hug and made a point of putting the focus on the person I was meeting.
It was interesting. Some people followed my lead and mirrored back the questions I was asking making for a nice exchange. Others launched into an autobiography, complete with pictures which was also fun. Others answered with a basic yes/ no responses making it like “pulling hen’s teeth” to keep the conversation going. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed every conversation and don’t share this to pick on any one approach. It was absolutely marvelous catching up – regardless the conversation style. But, I looked at things through a career professional’s eyes. I had the opportunity to experience unfamiliar networking waters first hand. After all, I “preach the gospel” of networking. I should dive into the deep end once in awhile too. And perhaps some of what I learned could help my clients and my blog readers.
You’d think in a room full of 50-somethings, with wonderful lives and stories to tell, there would be no trouble with small talk. And with all the information out there about meeting people and networking, at our age, we’d all know what to do. What I found was just the opposite. It’s uncomfortable in the incipient stage of the conversation – regardless age, background, accomplishments or in my case, networking knowledge. I was as nervous approaching people as I’m sure they were about approaching me. I kept the conversation rolling by asking about jobs, children, current location or was honest in sharing, “I really don’t remember you from high school anymore than you remember me, but isn’t this a great party?”
Once we’d broken the ice, things got easier. But those first tentative syllables were excruciating for the majority of us. Why do I share this story with you? To let you know it’s OK to be a bit apprehensive and uncomfortable when you’re out meeting a group of strangers. (I was, and I write about and coach clients in networking frequently.) And also to let you know, after the first few encounters, it does get easier and you will become braver. But, most importantly, I want to let you know, there are very few people out there who are gifted or even knowledgeable in the art of small talk. We’re all a bit intimidated by the prospect of approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation. You are not alone. Armed with a little networking knowledge you’ve already differentiated yourself from the rest crowd and can now help you put others at ease – a winning proposition for your next event.
I discovered a few other things on Saturday night too:
People you didn’t think would remember you, did.
People you thought (hoped?) would remember you, didn’t.
Things you did in high school you thought, at the time, were memorable, weren’t.
Things you did in high school and forgot were remembered.
Transitioning that information into a networking lesson: never underestimate the power of a simple gesture and don’t think you’re “all that” either. So get out there. Be interesting. Be interested. You never know what connection you’ll make, what memory will be stirred or what common ground you’ll uncover, just by extending your hand.