Since starting graduate school, I’ve developed the most peculiar problem – a fear of public speaking. Wow. I can’t really believe I just said that. You may be thinking, a fear of public speaking is quite common. And yes, you’d be right. But within my personal history this has simply not been the case. For example, in high school, I competed in Business Professionals of America Contemporaneous Speech, which is all about public speaking and with little preparation, and I was also an anchor on our high school’s television show. In my professional life, I recruited for the Bridge Builders program, which meant talking in front of hundreds of high school students, as if there could be a more intimidating audience. And here I am in graduate school, developing some sort of complex about speaking to colleagues in a seminar. Seriously?
Yesterday our Department, along with the Culture Lab and the Critical Race Initiative, had the honor of hosting Matthew Hughey, Associate Professor at UConn and super awesome, prolific sociologist whose “research examines the relationship between subjective social meanings and objective asymmetrical social relations, with a focus on racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass mediated racial representations.” I have been a fan of Matthew Hughey ever since I was a grad student hopeful, scouring the internet for articles within my interest areas and stumbled across his 2007 article “Crossing the Sands, Crossing the Color Line: Non-Black Members of Black Greek Letter Organizations.” As you can imagine, I had a couple questions that I wanted to ask. In my previous life, I would’ve just gone to the Q&A session he was having with graduate students and asked the question. But now that I seem to not be able to talk in front of a group, I had to practice my questions.
First, I had to write out exactly what I wanted to say, and then on the drive to school, I practiced out loud. I’ll admit I felt pretty silly, but it paid off. I was able to ask my question (btw I got a fantastic answer), and I was able to do that first step of networking: introductions.
No matter what your field, networking is crucial. By now you’re probably tired of hearing about the importance of networking, so I won’t belabor the point here. But when you see someone who has gotten numerous opportunities and wonder why, remember – networking.
One of the most common excuses people give for not networking is that they don’t like randomly going up to a stranger and striking up a conversation. It’s awkward. Luckily, because sociologists are somewhat quirky and strange anyways, that awkward feeling of meeting people for the first time that manifests into doing or saying something even more awkward is kinda insignificant. But if you are concerned about what to do or say and how to do it, here are my top four tips to networking.
- Don’t make your networking random. Make it deliberate. If you’re attending a conference, you more than most likely know who’s going to be there. Decide on a couple of key people that you’d like to meet. Why did you pick those people? Is it because you like their work? Then, say that. That’s not a random conversation at all; that’s called shared interests, which are a great way to start a conversation.
- Think about the creepy ways people have started conversations with you. Don’t do those creepy things. Perhaps you start the conversation with a compliment or praise on his or her published work. Fine, but don’t be obsequious. Also, pay attention to the conversational cues. Don’t linger. A timely exit is as important as a good entrance.
- Be genuine. The point of networking is to get to know people. Notice I didn’t say the point was to use people or be some sort of leech. When you’re genuinely interested in getting to know someone, it isn’t about what you can get from him or her but rather what you both can add to each other. Consequently, listening is imperative. Yes, say what you want to say, introduce yourself, but make sure you’re listening to what is said as well.
- Follow up. The introduction is only the first step. In order to build the relationship, you have to follow up. Send a brief email thanking the person for her time, remind her who you are perhaps by expanding on a topic you two discussed in your introductory encounter, and offer useful relevant information or assistance.
Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of things to keep in mind when networking but hopefully these will get you off on the right track. But knowing and doing are two totally different things. The only way to get better and more comfortable with networking is to actually get out there and do it.