Like it or not, part of the personal branding process is networking.
Whether that’s at a book launch, a poetry reading, the opening of a new bookstore, or a writer’s club, implanting your face into the creative hive mind of your community is of the utmost importance to your future career. For some people, this seems easy, even rejuvenating. You watch them float from person to person, interrupting conversations without batting an eyelash, offering firm handshakes and wide smiles. You, on the other hand, would much rather go home and continue that chapter you were writing.
Although I don’t ascribe to the stereotype that all writers are “lone wolves,” I do know that many of my writing friends (myself included) tend towards the introverted end of the spectrum, or indeed cling desperately to the pole. For introverts, networking events can be dull, uncomfortable, exhausting, even downright terrifying. Instead of skipping that invitation, though, here are some networking tips that will help you navigate the rocky terrain of fast-paced, split-second relationship building. Some of these are techniques will help in the moment, and others are self-care tips to make sure you aren’t stretching yourself too far beyond your comfort zone.
Tip #1: Play The Business Card Game
Business cards are a bit counter-intuitive for writers or artists. They seem corporate, far too serious a representation of the organic process of creation. Here’s the thing, though: Apart from being a super handy way to get your contact information out there to people you connect with, they make the best networking tools.
They can be the perfect ice-breaker. Want to start a conversation with someone but are unsure of how to do it? Ask for their business card: “I’ve been collecting cards, have you got one?” Want to end a conversation with someone? Hand them your card: “Well, here’s my card. Get in touch!”
I also find it helpful to play the business card game. I go to events with five business cards and tell myself I can’t leave until I hand them all out and collect five more. This makes the event a personal challenge, something I’ve decided to do. Having a reason for being there besides just — well, being there — makes it a lot easier to endure.
Tip #2: Perfect Your Two Opening Sentences
Before you begin networking, grab a pen and write down a brief elevator pitch for yourself. This shouldn’t be difficult, because if you’re in the network stage of your personal branding campaign, you should already have a pretty clear idea about how you want to portray yourself to others. The trick now is to vocalize it. Condense it into two sentences, answers to the questions: “Who are you?” and “What do you do?”
Question one should be straightforward. “My name is ________, I’m a __________.” Try finding an interesting way to describe your job, instead of just going for “author” or “writer.” Try aiming for something that both accurately describes your work and presents it in a new way. “Content creator,” “professional scribbler,” or “storyteller” are all ones I like. (Hint: Avoid using words like “guru” or “maven,” since this kind of overused superlative can come across as hackneyed and a bit pretentious.)
For example, I introduce myself by saying “My name is Vi La Bianca, I’m a freelance editor and book positioner.” My conversations often lead me to describing what “book positioning” is… which leads us nicely into question two.
Question two can be more nuanced, but shouldn’t give away all the details. The key to continuing conversation is to keep the other person wanting to know more. What do you write? What about your work is particularly interesting or unique? Pick an element of your work that you’re passionate about, and share that.
When asked what “book positioning” is, I’ll explain that I use a combination of targeted personal branding, developmental manuscript editing, and market research to best position a new author’s book for acquisition by a publishing house. This explanation gives answers the question while holding space for follow-ups.
Tip #3: Take Busywork Breaks
If the event runs long, or if you find yourself awkwardly sitting outside the conversation circle without the willpower to break back into the center of attention, it might be time for a busywork break. Pack a tablet or a notebook in your bag, and take some time to type or write yourself notes. These don’t have to deep or thoughtful pieces of prose, just something to do. (Don’t text if you can help it, since that comes across as rude and unprofessional. And try not to bring a book either, as it will look too much like you’ve anticipated getting bored.)
I’ve found that making sure you have something to retreat to (that makes you look important and busy) gives you a good excuse to move away from the conversation area and get some personal space. And if you’re at an event for writers, no one will question someone scribbling away in a journal.
Tip #4: Bow Out Gracefully
In a perfect world, people would understand when you say “I can’t stick around because I’ve maxed out my social interactivity for the day,” but as a society we aren’t quite there. So when the inevitable suggestion to stay longer, head to the bar, or meet up tomorrow makes its appearance, be sure you have a good excuse ready. Am I suggesting you lie to your brand new friends? Well, let’s just say as a writer you’re probably super good at telling stories, right?
My favorite excuses offer a vague specificity and usually involve my work or passion. “Oh, thanks, but I promised myself I’d get some writing in tonight,” or “I’d love to, but tomorrow is a personal writing deadline for me.” As with the evasive scribbling technique, if you’re around other creatives, these kinds of excuses will be completely understandable.
Tip #5: Develop An Aftercare Routine
Once, before I started exercising my extroverted side and realized I actually enjoyed people, I was invited on an outing with the friends of a friend. It only lasted about an hour and a half, and I don’t remember most of what we did. What I do remember was the total exhaustion and irritability that overcame me about halfway through and lasted long after I got home. I had overexerted myself and didn’t have a cool down routine to get me level-headed again. It wrecked the whole night.
Spend some time figuring out exactly what makes you relax. Now, I practice aftercare by lighting some candles and incense and meditating, or doing some ashtanga yoga routines, or cracking open a beer and watching West Wing reruns. Knowing that a good book or a favorite show is waiting for you on the other side of an event can help keep your energy up. Know your limit, respect your limit, and manage your time accordingly. Pamper yourself a bit.
Tip #6: Schedule Information Interviews
When I first got into the publishing industry, I was surprised by the amount of networking that was involved. While large gatherings were still a bit intimidating, I found a method of getting myself out there that really worked for me: informational interviews. I must have scheduled ten in the first two months, and met with agents and editors and authors to discuss what they did and learn what I could. Not only was it extremely educational for me (and relatively stress free), it also proved to be a valuable networking tactic: I heard through the grapevine that my name had started making the rounds in the inner circles, and that’s only ever a good thing.
If you want to network but are sick of large events, or if you find that you simply can’t connect with people at the depth you’d like, try scheduling one-on-one informational interviews with people in your field, writers who inspire you, even editors and agents who you think you might like to work with. Invite them out to have coffee or a drink, take a notepad, and listen well.
Tip #7: Inhabit Your Story World
Unlike many of the other introvert-centric tips on this list, this one is strictly the purview of writers. One of the best things about being a writer, in my opinion, is that you can take any uncomfortable situation and convert it into a story idea, or a cool new character, or those perfect three lines of description. I’ve gotten through many an awkward encounter or difficult life event by imagining how I’d write about it later.
As you navigate a networking event, try taking yourself out of the situation mentally and look at it from the perspective of a writer. Inhabit your story world. If you were the protagonist of a book, what would you be doing? How exactly would you describe the nerves you are feeling right now? If the zombie apocalypse were somehow to happen right now, which three people in the room do you think would be good survival companions? Go talk to those three people. Give them your business card. Tell them to call you if they see any zombies.