Monday, July 28, 2008

Networking - Stepping Outside of Your Comfort Zone

For everyone going to Nationals, here’s a reprint of an article I wrote back in 2007 for the Carolina Romance Writers’ The Final Draft Newsletter:


Networking - Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

Most writers are introverts – far from the social butterflies that RWA National dictates. We chose this profession because we feel more comfortable keeping to ourselves. We tend to stay away from social events and instead prefer to surround ourselves with imaginary people and events that we control. And while the majority of RWA members are open and friendly, we know it’s all about connections. If you don’t already know someone, sometimes getting that first connection can be daunting and uncomfortable to the point where it takes the excitement out of being at National.

At the PRO Retreat this year, one agent stated she only took on new clients by referrals. A hand was raised and the million-dollar question asked: “How do I get that referral?”

The most likely answer is ‘Network’.

Networking is a term all writers are aware of but stumble at. Some of us are too busy to keep 10+ active email loops. Some of us just don’t come off as very personable – yes, you know who you are. Some of us are career motivated and cannot spare a minute away our writing time. I’m one of those. Whatever is keeping you from your ability to network, your must first determine what is hindering you and recognize it as your weakness.

There are two ways to overcome your weaknesses: play up your strengths or tackle those weaknesses head-on.

I get stage fright and do not do well in front of people. I’m naturally quiet and am more an observer than a participator. Recognizing this as my weakness, I play up my strengths. I am at ease with the written form of the language, so most my networking is done online and through emails and email loops. There’s not a loop I’m not on and I can guarantee a lot of people will recognize my name or email. This works for me because it retains the feeling of comfort and safety while giving me the exposure to my peers in the industry to develop the connections I need. Play it safe and you’ll be amazed at the number of contacts you’ve made and people you’ve befriended.

However, we all know nothing in life is easy. The most important goals in life are the hardest to achieve. Knowing this, eventually you will have to step out of your comfort zone and face your weaknesses.

Take me for example. Knowing what my weaknesses are, I decided I wasn’t going to let it stop me from coming into contact with key individuals that are strategic to my success. So I put myself out there. I signed up to moderate a handful of workshops, which meant that I had to get in front of a room of people and actually talk. And because I’m ambitious and determined that if I go down, I go down with a fight (or just plain suicidal depending on how you look at it), I took this even further. These weren’t just any average workshops I’d volunteered for, these were publisher spotlights of houses and specific editors I’m targeting or who already has my manuscript on his/her desk.

Talk about an overachiever. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

The morning of my first moderating assignment, I started to panic. Omigod, what if I choke or close up on stage? I’m going to fall flat on my face and make a complete fool of myself in front of these editors I’m trying to oh-so-coolly to make a good impression on. They’re going to return to NY and pick my manuscript from their desk and think, “Oh, that’s the girl that stuttered during my introduction and mispronounced my name.” I was terrified at the thought. I just knew something bad was going to happen and had I been able to get out of the responsibility, I probably would have.

But, I squared my shoulders, pushed the fears aside, and acted like there were not a hundred people in the room and these were not editors I’m standing four feet from but regular people like myself. I wasn’t trying to get a request. My sole purpose for signing up to moderate these spotlights were to hear about the individual houses, learn what they are interested in, and get a feel for the personalities of these editors. And suddenly, I knew I could do this. I wasn’t trying to prove something or be someone I’m not. I was there to educate myself and get to know these editors. So I walked up, introduced myself, exchanged pleasantries and asked for the correct pronunciation of their names, waited until it was time to begin and took my spot on stage behind the microphone – and sailed right through it.

Did I tackle it flawlessly? Ha, in my dreams, perhaps. Did I stumble? Well, not on my feet, but on a word now and then. But it didn’t matter because by the time my third moderating gig rolled around, I felt like I was ready to conquer the world. I’d overcome my weakness, gotten the results I needed, and broadened my network in the industry. And when it came time for Q&A, I didn’t ask about submission guidelines or what they are looking for, I asked what a particular editor read for personal enjoyment. I asked what that editor did before becoming an editor and why he/she’d chosen their profession. I showed a genuine interest in getting to know the editor and I could tell they were surprised but pleased by the questions. I walked away feeling like I’d gotten to know the editor, and that was what I’d wanted.

Can anyone do what I’d just done? Of course they can. Can anyone become a better networker? Most definitely. But—can anyone succeed at networking? Well, that depends on one key factor.

While most people will stress the importance of networking and give you pointers on what to say, how to dress, and how to behave, they forget to bestow the one advice that separates you from every other writer out there trying to make a connection.

Be genuine.

I spend a good deal of time studying others and observing interactions around me and have learned that at National, in an environment where everyone is aiming for the same goal (to make a good impression and get noticed by editors and agents), genuineness outshines pretension. A published peer can tell when you are genuinely interested in them and their books, and when you’re suddenly laying on the sugar in hopes of getting an introduction to an editor or agent in their circle.

Next time you attend RWA National, don’t be afraid to step away from your comfort zone and make those connections. Don’t network with the intention of advancement. Instead, network with the intention of broadening your knowledge and getting to know your peers around you. They will notice and the connections will come.


Savanna Kougar said...

Great insights, Mai. And congrats for going beyond your comfort zones. I spent a bunch o' years accomplishing that myself, in a different life arena. So I know, it certainly ain't all that easy, for the most part.
You're absolutely right about being genuine. I think that's why a lot of people will talk to me, and won't really talk to others. Simply because I care and I'm really interested.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Great advice! I wish I was going but I'll keep your points in mind for when I do go to my first big conference. :)

Mai--What's your favorite conference you've been to and why?

Mel Hiers said...

Great article, Mai!

I know exactly where my comfort zone ends: the threshold of a room full of people I don't know. Mingling is SO my weakness. If I have some sort of purpose, I'm good. But shove me into a group of strangers and I cower. :-P Public speaking doesn't scare me nearly as much.