Small Talk in a Big Room

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You’re standing at the ballroom door leading into the conference happy hour. You see hundreds of your colleagues milling about, sipping wine, and chatting amiably. And then you start thinking. They’re smart. They’re successful. Their book projects are going waaaay better than yours. Ugh, there will be small talk in that big room.

Suddenly, room service sounds like a brilliant idea and you can’t get to the elevator fast enough.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain points out a historical shift in what were perceived as characteristics of successful people. In the 19th century, she notes, desirable attributes included citizenship, duty, honor, morals, manners, and integrity. (Aaaah...those were the days!) But by the early 20th century, those traits had shifted and now people were striving to be magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, forceful, and energetic. I don’t know about you, but I can think of plenty of historians who absolutely are the 19th century ideal, but shy away from those 20th century descriptors.

So what’s an introverted historian to do when that dreaded extroversion-driven networking session looms and it’s just not your jam? I have ideas.

Network Your Way

It turns out those big bashes where everyone exchanges business cards are the least effective way to make connections. And making connections is really what networking is supposed to be about. Does this get you out of attending them? Well, not entirely. Show up, have your business cards, pens, stickers, etc. ready and meet some people. But recognize the limitations of this type of networking session.

To build deeper connections in ways that may feel more authentic, consider the following:

  • Coffee Talk. It’s amazing how far a cup of coffee can go in building meaningful connections. Seriously. Invite a colleague to meet you at the funky little coffee shop down the street. You might be surprised how many people are able to spare a few minutes for coffee and conversation.

  • Events and Meetings. Every time you’re at an event or participating in a meeting, you’re networking. Actively listen, join in the conversation. Just say “good morning” to the person you’re sitting next to in the big conference session. Then follow up with people one-on-one afterward. Forward an article you read that might be of interest, send a thank you to someone who provided you with helpful information, offer to help someone who presented a need. Just say “it was nice to meet you.”

  • Social media. Social media is a gold mine for meeting people and creating connections. A conversation on Twitter can lead to cocktails at a conference. Instagram is an excellent place to showcase your work and discover what others are working on too. LinkedIn and Facebook provide forums for discussion and sharing resources. And never underestimate the power of email. Let someone know you enjoyed their exhibit, recommended their book, or used their podcast. That’s networking!

Plan Ahead

A little preparation can go a long way toward improving all of your networking opportunities.

  • Do background research. Before any event, do a little research on who will be there and what they are working on. Think about how your work connects with theirs. Having that information in mind will help drive conversation and make you feel confident when you enter the room.

  • What do you want to learn from others? Networking becomes a lot easier when it’s not about you. You’re about to be surrounded by smart people. What do you want to learn from them? When it becomes less about you and more about them, you take the pressure off of yourself and you reap the benefits of the star-power around you.

  • Change your perception of the situation. Still standing at the conference room door, dreading the thought of small talk? Instead of thinking of happy hour as something you have to do to meet people, think of it as something you get to do because you’re curious about what others are up to. Tell yourself you’re curious about the people in the room, that you’re excited to meet them, that you want to learn what they’re up to. It may feel a bit artificial at first, but pretty soon you’ll discover that it’s really true.

In the Moment

You did your prep work, you got your mental game in order, now it’s time to enter the networking ring. The good news is, you have more control over your networking encounters than you might think.

  • You get to decide how you show up. No matter how shy you may feel. No matter how much you really wish you were able to just hide in the archives. No matter how desperately you’re longing for that quiet library. You can decide to show up confident, curious, and social. It’s just coffee, or an email, or a Tweet. Take a deep breath and be whoever you need to be in that moment. Then you can go back to the archives, I promise.

  • Listen. If talking is the hard part for you, then listen. And follow up later in social media, email, or wherever is natural. You’ll make an impression when you can demonstrate that you were paying attention to the conversation and have more to contribute when the conversation is over.

  • Smile. That’s it. Really.

  • Find commonality - or differences. Because you’ll have done your research, you’ll know all about the people you’re meeting and reaching out to. Identify commonalities that you can connect around. Or find differences that you’re curious about and ask them about their experiences. Let them share with you!

  • Be comfortable with a little discomfort. People tend to be most energized and feel most rewarded when they’re doing something just slightly outside their comfort zone. Accept that all of this networking stuff is uncomfortable, then do it anyway, in ways that are just outside your comfort zone.

There are conferences on the horizon, projects you want to work on, and people you should be connecting with. It doesn’t have to be daunting. Start now, start small and eventually you’ll have broad connections and meaningful relationships that will help you and your colleagues engage more deeply with your work. Besides, I’m pretty sure all historians can have 19th century honor, morals, and integrity, and still find some 20th century magnetism too.


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