Thou shalt network, people used to tell me. Connections are how you get ahead in any business.
And me, I’d ignore them. Hell, I was all fuck that shit. Networking brought to mind visions of trading business cards and ruthlessly finding people to help you getting ahead that seemed…well, exceedingly eighties. Right up there with giant shoulder-pads and Duran-Duran. I didn’t see a place for it in the arts, and it sure as hell as wasn’t playing to my strengths as an introverted chap who dislikes meeting new people.
Then I met my friend Angela Slatter, who is one of those networking dynamos who quietly sets about connecting the world together. She hooked me up with my first publisher, Twelfth Planet Press, after I told her about the weird-ass unicorn novella I’d written that I figured no-one would ever publish. She introduced me to a bunch of other writers, passed on opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have heard about, and generally taught me the value of being a well-networked writer.
“But what you do isn’t really networking,” I said once, fairly early on in our friendship. “You’re just doing favours for people you know.”
“Exactly,” Angela said. “What in hell do you think networking is?”
And lo, I was schooled, and the scales fell from my eyes.
So, yeah, I learned my lesson on that front, and while I’m still an introverted, reclusive chap who will never be known for his ability to work a room, I’ve also become a lot better at building up networking and using its powers for good. I am, officially, a convert – there are certain things in writing you just don’t hear about or learn without a solid network of peers around you.
So lets talk networking. Specifically, how to network if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy leaving the safety of your house.
GET OVER THE TERMINOLOGY HUMP
The biggest point of resistance when I talk to other writers about networking is almost always a problem of terminology. We’ve trained ourselves to think of networking as something inherently artificial and false, like the only reason we’re going out and connecting with people is so we can take advantage of them. This is a particularly hideous thought when you’re one of natures introverts, prizing deeper connections with a handful of people over shallow connections with hundreds.
The truth is that you network is really more organic and natural than that. It’s not about names and numbers you can use and abuse, it’s about building mutual beneficial relationships with people you like and respect. It’s meeting up with friends and getting to know the friends of friends. Or it’s getting to know the peeps in your field a little better, one or two at a time, and seeing how you can help one another out.
Truth is, the terminology doesn’t matter and if you let yourself get caught up in the feeling that it’s all about you, then you’re basically doomed to fail. ‘Cause here’s the real core of building a network: it’s not about you and what you get.
It’s about what you can do for others. It’s about doing favours.
NETWORKING IS ALL ABOUT HELPING OUT YOUR PEEPS
You’re not engaging in a cynical exercise, you’re looking out for your friends. When you go to a conference or a festival, you’re not getting to know people so you can cynically ask them for favors; you’re familiarizing yourself with their careers and goals so you can pass on useful information and introduce them to people that may be able to help.
And it isn’t just big things, like hooking a peep up with a publisher (although, make no mistake, that’s pretty awesome). These days, a lot of my networking activities come in the form of giving a colleague a heads up; I’ll get emailed details about an upcoming prize about environmental writing that seems a perfect fit for a YA writer who took a course I ran a few weeks back, so I drop them an email; I see a blog post that I think one of my friends would find interesting, so I tweet them a link and suggest they check it out; someone mentions being nervous about networking at an upcoming event, so I send ’em an email that’s a somewhat truncated version of this post.
Forget about doing what’s best for you; help out your peeps without any desire or expectation of them returning the favour. Don’t make the mistake of thinking big – a thoughtful hey, I read this thing, and it seemed pertinent to what you do; are you interested is all it takes.
ALL HAIL TWITTER
Social media means that we’re often connected to more people than we expect, and it’s easy to forget that they’re part of your network. I’ve got plenty of friendships that have largely developed through the exchange of tweets, and many people I’ve met in passing at conventions that I’d probably forget if it weren’t for their names scrolling past on my twitter feed.
Pay attention to your social media, particularly if you’re the reclusive type. The occasional reply or re-tweet of those people you’d like to get to know better or keep on your radar goes a long way.
FIND YOUR COHORT
Here’s one of the weird things I’ve noticed about writing – people tend to come to prominence in cohorts and small groups. They’re the folks who all started going to conventions at the same time, started publishing novels at the same time, and generally face similar kinds of writing problems at around the same point.
When it comes to networking, it’s generally easier to start by networking with the folks who are at about the same point in their career as you. For one thing, you’re more likely to be able to do them favours; for another, you’ll all develop networks naturally as your career progresses, and you can help one-another out with new introductions as things go on.
While it’s a truism that the friends you have at the beginning of your writing career are rarely the same friends you have at the end, the cohort of writers developing at the same time as you are a valuable resource.
PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
If you’re a quiet, shy introvert who hates crowds, don’t force yourself to work the room at a convention or writing event. Play to your strengths as a networker – find someone you can actually have a conversation with and have a damn conversation. Pick the other person who’s lurking at the back of the room, looking uncomfortable. Or find a newcomer at the convention and offer to introduce them to a few people.
There’s no prize when it comes to networking. Handing a business card out to fifty people doesn’t mean that you’ve done a good job, particularly if the connections you’ve made are so shallow that all fifty of those people toss your card in the bin before the event is over. One or two close connections can be far more important, if the people you talk to are likely to remember you in the aftermath and you’re in a position to help them out somehow.
PUSH YOURSELF A LITTLE, THEN GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK
If you truly dread meeting new people (and man, I’m with you there), then don’t put pressure on yourself to spend an entire event or conference weekend doing something you hate. For one thing, it’s going to affect your enjoyment and that won’t make you fun to be around. For another thing, if you’re a true introvert, that’ll burn you out like no-ones business.
Aim to meet one new person or spend time developing your connection with a handful of passing acquaintances – something that pushes you out of your comfort zone – then give yourself a break and hang with the peeps you’re comfortable around instead of beating yourself up and pushing to do more.
TIPS FOR BEING THE KIND OF PERSON WHO CAN WORK THE ROOM FROM TIME TO TIME
Even if you do all the things I talked about above, there are still going to be those moments where you find yourself at an event where working the room is kinda the point. There are all sorts of semi-formalised “networking” events in the arts – program launches, opening night parties, pretty much anything where the vibe is stand-around-and-eat-canapés while dressing a little better than you usually do.
And occasionally, despite your best efforts, you’ll find yourself getting a job in the arts where networking is an expected job skill. Or, at least, I did.
In that case, here are the quick survival tips for getting through networking events:
INTRODUCE PEOPLE: The easiest survival tactic at an event where networking is expected is to play to the events strength – spend the evening introducing people who may not know each other. Obviously this is a tactic that relies heavily on having a network of folks you know there already, but you can fake your way through the evening with the people you’re meeting for the first tie.
LOOK FOR PAIRS: This advice came from this site and it’s proven to be a lifesaver; look for the people who are hanging out in pairs and introduce yourself to them. Usually this will be two people who know each other, both of whom are feeling a little guilty for hanging out together instead of networking like the event encourages you to do. They’ll be greatful you’ve given them an “out,” so to speak, and there’s a good chance you’ll be left with one of the two.
ASK QUESTIONS (AND PREP SOME STANDARD QUESTIONS IN ADVANCE): Just like all the dating advice says – the best way to get someone to like you is to start asking them questions. Well, asking questions and being genuinely interested in the answers, but the questions are the important part. When you know the event beforehand, and you’re pretty sure of the kinds of people who will be there, you can usually prep this in advance (At GenreCon, for example, “what’s your genre?” is a perfectly valid icebreaker; at writing events, asking about people’s books or what they’re working on serves the same purpose)
CLOSE WELL: I’ll admit that I struggle badly with this one, but try to avoid the standard “nice to have met you” close to a conversation with those you’ve just met. Even if it has been nice to meet them, it smacks of being polite and generally not all that interested in the person you’ve been talking too. Try to start closing with style – a handshake and a genuine thanks for giving you some of their time, or a “cheers, you’ve been brilliant company” will make you stand out from all the other peeps they’ve met in the last hour or so.
FINALLY, PENCIL IN YOUR RECOVERY TIME
When I went to World Fantasy in England last year, I was travelling with my sister immediately afterwards. She asked me what I wanted to do the day after the convention.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’ll need to sleep.”
She didn’t really believe me at the time, but when the con ended and we were safely ensconced in a London hotel room, I preceded to sleep for about eighteen hours straight, thoroughly dead to the world. You could have tasered me and I wouldn’t notice.
Partially this was the result of a couple of late nights, but a lot more came down to the simple fact that conferences drain my energy reserve. They’re fun, and I enjoy them immensely, but I need the recovery time afterwards.
If you’re truly an introvert – as in, someone who recharges their batteries with time alone instead of feeding on other people – be realistic about what face-to-face networking will take out of you and plan accordingly. Its easy to start resenting the process if you find yourself going to work the next day, without adequate recharge time, so pencil some time to recover and do something for yourself.
Speaking of Angela Slatter, she’s just launched a competition on her blog where you can win a copy of Home and Hearth, her latest novella from Spectral Press. Free Slatter fiction is always a good thing, so I recommend heading over there and putting your entry in.