Networking: Stumbling Block #1–Fear
A high percentage of writers are introverts and our natural instinct is to just sit at home and write. But while some authors can parlay that into book sales without ever leaving their comfort zone, in this modern age of branding and name-marketing, selling our books is much harder to do without networking and marketing ourselves. You have to learn how to talk to people!
Whether introverted or extroverted, there are going to be some stumbling blocks you’ll need to get over and etiquette you’ll need to learn. From my experience, networking takes years to learn, so don’t expect to become an expert overnight. Practice, practice, practice!
Stumbling Block #1: FEAR. Networking boils down to putting ourselves into a place of vulnerability with a high likelihood of rejection. Fun, huh? In doing some research for a new character I’m developing, I have discovered that I have mild social anxiety disorder. Not enough to keep me from functioning now, but now that I know what it is, I understand why I had so many problems connecting socially as a child/teen/young adult. It was FEAR. Fear of rejection, so I wouldn’t put myself in a position to be rejected. Fear of not doing something perfectly, therefore not trying in the first place. Fear of being judged by onlookers—always feeling like people are watching/judging me. Sound familiar? As I have grown more comfortable with myself as an adult, these fears are still there, but I don’t let them rule my life. I know of what I am capable (such as not ending a sentence with a preposition). By forcing myself to get out there and meet people (kinda had to when I moved to Nashville in 1996 where I knew no one and had no job), forcing myself to talk to strangers, and forcing myself out of my comfort zone by attending large national conferences, I began to gain confidence in myself as an intelligent woman who could carry on conversations with a variety of people on an endless number of subjects. I watched people around me I admired—especially my former boss Mary Ella Hazelwood, who is an expert at networking—and mimicked the techniques I saw until they became second nature to me.
FEAR OF STRANGERS. I am still extremely uncomfortable around strangers. The parties I like to go to are those where I know everyone who will be in attendance—usually about 10–15 tops!—where I know the music won’t be too loud and I won’t have to force myself to speak to people I don’t know. But one thing I have learned to do when in these kinds of stranger-ful situations is to ask questions. Every person is most eloquent when speaking about something near and dear to his/her heart. Therefore, I’ve learned to pick up on verbal cues—a mentioned hobby, a place lived, a book read, a school attended, a sport loved—and ask the stranger about that particular topic.
Almost every person in the world has something unique and interesting about them. Good networkers can find that and get them to start talking about it. But, don’t just “interview” them. Be sure—when APPROPRIATE—to interject information about yourself. Learn how to share anecdotes about your own life in a fun and interesting way. Also, learn how to read your audience. Are you a married-mom-of-four in a room full of mostly single people? They probably aren’t going to want to hear stories about your kids. But they may want to hear about how you found that fabulous necklace you’re wearing at a great little antique store down in the Warehouse District in Chattanooga. (“Oh, you’ve been to Chattanooga, too? What’s your favorite part?”) College professor in a room full of blue-collar workers? Try talking about the old barn you helped your grandfather refurbish when you were a kid.
FEAR OF BEING OUT-TALKED. Some of the most tiring and annoying people in the world are those who don’t know what is appropriate and what isn’t when it comes to interjecting the personal stories. Don’t be the kind of person who always has to one-up any story anyone else tells. (“You think that’s something? Well, MY experience is . . .”) If someone is speaking about a sick relative, you don’t have to talk about your sicker relative. You don’t have to have a “matching” story for every story the others around you tell. And by all means, DON’T be the kind of person who has to follow the other person’s story with one illustrating how your experience was better, worse, more exciting, more terrifying, etc. Sometimes, the better way to network is to let the person you’re speaking to have the limelight, feel special, be the center of attention. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: it is not all about you!
FEAR OF REJECTION. Admit it—we all carry around at least a little fear of being rejected, some of us just carry it much closer to the surface than others. We’re afraid people aren’t going to like us. We want validation of ourselves as interesting, important beings on this journey called Life. We don’t want to blend into the walls, but we don’t want to risk getting hurt, either. I was the kid who always wanted to be part of the “popular group”—no, make that ANY group—but because I was somewhat socially inept, I made an easy target for those kids who did have social skills, amongst which is the skill of ostracizing others. I usually had one or two other “outcast” kids that I played with, but pretty much stayed a loner. I remember in Junior High (what a wonderful time of emotions and raging hormones puberty is!) crying because I felt like the few other girls in my class at a small private school didn’t like me and were pushing me out of their circle because I’d decided to play volleyball instead of going out for cheerleading. It didn’t matter that all the girls on the volleyball team liked me. What mattered is that these other couple of girls didn’t seem to like me anymore and were rejecting me.
My high school was so large that while I did make a few close friends, I pretty much just kept to myself, went to classes, and then went home, where I immersed myself into fictitious worlds surrounded by characters I knew well whom I knew would never reject me. As far as the relationship scene went, I quickly learned the rejection of never being asked out. So I made friends with lots of guys and even though I did get my heart broken by falling in love with one of them in college, I never had to go through that most awful of rejections, a break-up.
After going through a severe depression where I became almost completely isolated, I entered my 20s starting to crave social interaction. I sought out other 20-something singles through church. Because they liked to go out country dancing, I learned to have fun doing it, too. But I started to know myself better. I started to understand my fear of rejection, the fear that people wouldn’t like me. Living with my parents after dropping out of college not only changed our relationship for the better (much better), but it taught me how to relate with other adults in a loving relationship that, while it wouldn’t always be perfect, would never be cut off just because I did or said something stupid. I learned that I didn’t always have to go out and do what all of my friends wanted to do. If it wasn’t an activity I was interested in, I didn’t go. And you know what—I didn’t lose friends over it. I learned I had marketable job skills that led me through a succession of several jobs. And I learned that I was a good teacher and had a knack for leadership. God surrounded me with people who built up my confidence before He moved me to Nashville where I would have to put myself forward if I ever expected to meet anyone, to have a job, or have a life. In the past ten years, the most important thing I have learned about rejection is that nearly everyone surrounding me feels the same way.
Here are a few exercises for overcoming the fear of rejection:
- Seek out someone else and NOT-reject him or her. Find the person sitting in the corner alone or standing slightly apart from the crowd. No, they aren’t always going to want to talk to you, but more likely than not, you will at least brighten someone else’s day, if not make an important networking contact.
- Learn how to walk up to a group and join it. This is easiest to practice at conferences/large gatherings where most people don’t know each other well. One of the hardest things for me at my first writing conference in 2001 (Blue Ridge Christian Writers’ Conference) was walking into the cafeteria and not going off to a table by myself, but walking up to one with a few open chairs and asking if I could join those already seated there. Sometimes, they are saving the seat(s) for someone else. They’re not rejecting me, they’re just NOT-rejecting someone else. And there are other tables with other interesting people sitting at them where I can be NOT-rejected. One of the most important things I do when walking up to and joining a “group in progress” is to just listen. I listen to the conversation already going around. For the most part in the beginning, I keep my comments to myself—partly from fear of their rejecting what I have to say, but also out of basic politeness. I’ve just “forced entry” into the group. I don’t want to follow that up with “forcing entry” into the conversation as well.
- Learn how to converse on a variety of topics. Watch the evening news. Review the bestseller lists. Check the headlines and article blurbs on the home page of your local newspaper, the USA Today, CNN, or other national news sites, or listen to the news on NPR when getting ready in the mornings or driving home in the afternoons. NPR does about 10 minutes of headline news on the hour every hour. Try not to introduce controversial topics such as politics or religious subjects unless you know your audience very well. Strive for neutral topics of general interest. Remember, not everyone likes sports or watches the most popular TV shows. For writers talking to other writers, starting a conversation is as simple as saying, “So, what do you write? Tell me about your work in progress.”
- Practice, practice, practice. This is going to sound really weird and simplistic for all the extroverts out there, but just bear with me. Practice overcoming the fear of rejection first by making eye contact and smiling at people. Now, depending on what area of the country you live in, you will get varying results with this. When I lived in Washington DC, making eye contact with others was hard, simply because of the nature of the Big City. However, whenever I did make eye contact with someone and they returned my smile, I felt like I’d met a kindred spirit. (Ah, so glad to be living in the south again!) Once you’re comfortable making eye contact and smiling at passers-by, try saying a simple “Hello.” (Try to avoid the question, “How are you?” because if you don’t want a genuine answer, you shouldn’t ask the question. I actually get annoyed by people who use that question as a greeting because I know they don’t really want to know “how” I am any more than I want to know “how” they are.) Next step is to actually strike up conversations with people—in line at the store, at the gym, at your kids’ games/practices/events, at the airport, etc. Start attending events you wouldn’t normally attend with increasingly larger groups of people present. Practice walking up and joining groups of people and learning how and when to enter the conversation.