In the earliest stages of my career as a designer and developer, I would visit networking events because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be doing. Meeting people and “getting out into the community” a bit. Giving a little to get a little, right? The more business cards I handed out, I thought, the more my phone would be ringing off the hook.
You know the scene: small business owners gather, desperately hoping that handing out 25 cards will mean new business. The type of event where you leave feeling a bit empty inside. You act like you’re interested in insurance sales, or cabinet fabrication, or steam cleaning services, but you’re not.
Looking back on those first experiences, I realized I was not only visiting the wrong events, but I was also somewhat ill-prepared for why I was there in the first place. I didn’t have a concrete story to tell (or sell) let alone a game plan if someone sincerely wanted to take steps forward with my company in that moment. I’ll come back to that thought.
In addition to being misguided when it came to the general context of those networking events, I noticed the thick awkwardness that has a tendency to befall such social situations.
Whereas some personalities have no problem walking into a room and talking for hours—the outwardly energized sales personality, no doubt—there are others that understand the value of connecting with new people, but falter in shyness.
As I started moving away from random local business gatherings and into industry specific or targeted events, I came across more creative types—designers, developers, and software folks—than I ever had before. Be it a small local event or a massive conference experience, then and now, I’ll consistently see bright minds and observe just how awkward they can be.
But the thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve realized that there are a few pillars in being successful when networking opportunities arise for shy (or less than supremely confident) creatives. The first thing to remember is:
Be prepared to talk about yourself.
Going back to my note above, I was rarely ready to talk about myself or my business for the longest time. I didn’t have a story lined up about what my company stood for or a much of anything in the way of a “spiel” to guide me. When I hear someone say “I build websites” these days, I cringe a little. Everyone builds websites just like everyone’s a photographer.
Differentiate your creative profession in a way that makes you memorable to those you’re talking to. It’s more than half the battle, but also be sure you:
Have something to sell.
Once you’re prepared with the “why” of your creative endeavors, focus on the what. What is it that you are doing the very best right now? How is your service or creative consult of benefit to another business? It’s more important to put yourself in the shoes of a prospective client than it is to stew in what it is you think they need to buy from you.
You need to harvest relationships to people you can sell to, but at the end of the day, if your only goal is to sell units to faceless people, you’re doing it wrong. Which reminds me that we all must:
Remain an active listener.
The very worst conversations are single sided; one where you’ve introduced yourself and exchanged initial niceties, but settle into a conversation that’s all about one side of the coin. Listen to what your new friend is saying and ask intelligent questions, hopefully prompting insightful thought and response, but also indicating to them that you care more about their dialogue than the average [insert creative passion here]. If you’re lucky, they’ll do the same with you.
At the very worst, you’ll walk away having had a productive conversation offering practice in talking about you and your company. However, if you find yourself against a wall, keep in mind you should:
Never loiter in conversation.
Let’s say you’re a print designer, and you find yourself in a conversation with another print designer at a networking event. If your goal is to “get out in the community” then, hey, enjoy meeting a fellow competitor! But if your networking goal is to meet new people while gathering potential leads, spend only a few minutes with this colleague and move on. There’s only so much time to say hello to new faces in situations like this and you need to use your time wisely. It’s not personal; it’s business.
In my experience, the longer we loiter in familiar conversation, the more awkward things become and the less productive everyone is. The same holds true for a conversation with a prospect you meet: one that is really only interested in talking about his or her company, and not at all about what it is you do. You’ll want to part ways fairly quickly, but don’t forget to:
Always position yourself as a connector.
One of the best things you can bring to the table with anyone while networking is your own personal network. I don’t mean giving away your rolodex, but be willing to provide a contact or two that may or may not be of benefit to someone you’re speaking with. Funny thing is, the more you come to the table with an open heart and a willingness to help others, the more you’ll begin to see this in return.
For example, perhaps the person you’re speaking with won’t become a client, but you learn through mindful conversation that their spouse works squarely within an industry you would love to break into. Understand their pain points first and offer what help you can, then wait for reciprocity, or, by all means, politely ask for their spouse’s contact information. Even better, sometimes the best opportunities arise when you:
Seek out small groups.
Diving right into a networking experience can be easier when you find a group of 3-4 people already conversing. Jump into those groups, make a comment about how you noticed his or her shirt/hair/shoes/smile from afar and you had to come say hello. Dropping a compliment from the start drives conversation positively from the onset and almost always prompts the group to ask questions right away.
You’ll not only have the benefit of getting to know multiple people faster, but the pressure’s reduced when you’re not the only one in the driver’s seat. But all that being said:
Set realistic expectations from the start.
The worst networking experiences come from those that are blindly pushing a product or service down another person’s throat. Don’t be that person, and don’t expect to meet a new client at every event you attend. In fact, expect nothing.
Jam your pocket full of business cards and only hand one out when you’ve had a meaningful conversation or if someone asks. It’s better to walk away knowing about 4 people very well versus 10 people on the surface. It’s less fulfilling and if I were to guess, won’t help build your business any faster.
Successfully networking as a creative person isn’t difficult. But it does require us all to step away from our screens, printing presses, and canvases long enough to consider how we can maximize our potential in public. By following these simple principles, you’ll be amazed at how positive you can feel walking away from an event.
That goes for you, talented but nervous designer lady. And you, goofy artist type. And even you, awkward Microsoft programmer guy. We’re all more socially capable than we think. You just need to prove it to yourself first.
Over the last year our small remote studio became a little less small by bringing on our first full-time employee. The hiring process was new to us and we stumbled plenty along the way, but one thing that sticks with me—and does to this day as we look to bring on the next fit for the team—is that it’s incredibly easy to appear as just another face in the crowd.