Once, a regular participant in the annual World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association suggested that we ought to organize some kind of pre-conference mixer, for nervous first-timers—many speechwriters being introverts and all. We rejected the idea, because we didn’t know how to convene a mixer that would be any less awkward than the real thing.
But recently I was reminded of how awkward the real thing can actually be, when you’re not the host and emcee.
Although no one would describe me as suave, I think I’m a pretty comfortable receiver of old acquaintances and new ones alike, at the World Conference and other meetings we run.
But when it comes to cold networking, in a roomful of people I haven’t gathered myself, I’m about as awkward as anybody—as you’re about to find out.
I shouldn’t have been nervous, arriving at a recent networking breakfast in Chicago. Like everyone else in attendance, I’d been invited by a high-profile media organization, for a conversation about communication. In any case, I arrived on my Triumph, looking straight out of a J. Crew catalog.
And yet, here’s what I did upon entering the room:
I strode determinedly—almost militaristically—to the coffee urns, not because I was so desperately in need of coffee, but because it was a clear mission that did not require social niceties. After getting my coffee, I over-eagerly introduced myself to the two hosts, each of whom knew me a little more vaguely and received me a little more coolly than I had hoped. Noted networker Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
I reeled rubber-legged over to a wall and pretended to furiously check my email, in a spirit that suggested that I was waiting for the nuclear codes. How silly was this? No one was watching me.
Except, somebody was. A meeting organizer, who came up to tell me where my place setting was, and also pointed across the room, to the man I would be sitting next to. Perchance, in case I wanted to introduce myself.
To a stranger?
Instead, I charged off in another direction, toward a woman I recognized, since we had recently connected on LinkedIn. She was engaged in conversation with another woman, in a very tight space. But I was out of options. With all the grace and timing of a mortally wounded Sunda stink badger in heat, I rudely wedged myself in between the two women, apologized for interrupting, stuck out my hand to the one I knew and said grandly, “You’re Beth!”
“Ellen,” she said with a sympathetic smile.
All of the above happened within three minutes of my entering the room.
The conversation with Ellen and her colleague was all right, though I guess I could have come across as slightly less ranty? I believe it was Miss Manners who said: At a networking function, always err on the side of less ranty.
But then it came time for me to sit down and eat. In the same way you should not ingest psychedelic mushrooms around people you don’t trust, I cannot eat in front of people I am just meeting. It’s like some sort of networking-specific eating disorder, perhaps related to an untoward taco bar incident that occurred at a networking meeting in my twenties. (As God is my witness, I thought it was a salad bar. I wound up eating a great mound of dry shredded lettuce, with only shredded cheese for dressing, and pretending that was normal.) *
So this unbelievable menu of salmon tartine, grilled flat iron steak and eggs and potatoes with bravas sauce went untouched by me. I wiped out a yogurt parfait and scribbled notes furiously, saying nothing and leaving immediately after the meeting ended.
So, do I seem to be the guy who should create a guide to networking and conference-going, for shy people? I shouldn’t be telling, I should be asking our conference participants: How on earth do you do it?
* (Actually, I’m well known for doing spectacularly stupid things at of all kinds at public events; look for a post tomorrow, about the time I “Murrayed” a wedding cake.)