One of my biggest fears, which I soon found out was a lot of people’s biggest fear, is the fear of networking.
Flashback to one year ago, and the thought of networking – of having to work a room full of people I didn’t know and who were probably all a lot more important and taller than me (trust me, this matters when you are only 5 2″) – scared me so much.
I have always considered myself to be a ‘people’ person, which doesn’t really explain why networking threw me off so much. My first ever networking experience involved little me being talked over by four very tall, loud men. I was so embarrassed and whenever I tried to add to the conversation I got talked over and ignored, and not one person made eye contact with me except when I excused myself and left to go hide in the toilet and wonder how I was so so bad at networking. As a girl, and a girl of my height, I learned the hard way that you can so easily be talked over and ignored. But, one bad experience can’t put you off for life.
Networking experiences will always be a mixture of good and bad. You will meet all kinds of people in your respective jobs, some will be friendly, welcoming, others will be brash and domineering. The only consistent thing at these events was going to be me, and therefore my own confidence and how I carried myself was going to have to become more important.
I took some time to first of all reflect on why I didn’t feel confident. Was it because I hadn’t really had that much practice with meeting lots of strangers? Was it because I didn’t think I had anything valuable to input into conversations? Was it because, actually, I was a little bit shy and underconfident? Yea, actually, it was probably a mix of all three of these things. My goal for the year very quickly became to work on my own confidence with meeting new people, to prepare me better for networking situations.
My part time job was something that hugely helped my confidence. Working for a charity I ran a project where I had to speak to large groups of 10 kids and 10 adults where the first few times had made me super nervous. But, after a while, I got used to it and realised that I was actually good at it. Finding opportunities where you can practice meeting new people or public speaking, even in non-networking environments – can be just as valuable as networking itself.
later, I signed up to go to a conference about Russian-British relations which involved a lecture and then a networking ‘breakfast’ as a chance to practise my new found confidence, and I took on a volunteering opportunity which involved me meeting new people every week.
I also learned about the importance of watching how other people network. When you go to a networking event, keep in your head the people you thought naturally managed to move into conversations and how they introduced themselves to people. Think about what it is that they did that made their networking persona so natural and effective, and try and incorporate it into yours. I truly believe that networking is a learned skill – of course, some people find it easier than others, but that doesn’t mean you have to write yourself off just because you don’t feel too confident about it.
I also found that preparing example questions for networking events really helped with conversation starters. If you’re going to a law event, these kind of questions can be as simple as how did you get into law? To what department are you working in? Etc. People generally love talking about themselves so if you can ask them some interesting questions to get to know them you surely can’t go wrong.
My biggest fear was – what did I have to offer at these events? Often everyone else was a qualified lawyer, businessman, or in some sort of interesting professional job, and here was me – a student armed with little other than ambition. But, I learned that actually, these events are there for you to grow your ambition, your network, your horizons. I learned so much about what I would and wouldn’t love about different areas of law from talking to people about it, and everyone has been at the start of their career at some point so they understand that you are their to ask questions and find out about more so you can be informed about your career.
If you haven’t got LinkedIn yet too, these are great for when you go to networking events. Connecting with people on LinkedIn gives you the chance to keep in contact should a job opportunity to arise, and often contact post updates about what their business or firm is doing, or interesting legal news that could come in handy for you to talk about interview.
Learning to be a networking queen is not necessarily something you will acquire overnight, but it is something that will come easier the more you practice, prep and work on your confidence and realising that you are an interesting person that people will want to talk to.