When I ditched employment and set up my writing business a year ago, it was after years of dithering about it. Lots of false starts spending my evenings dreaming, then sleepless nights unpicking every single element of my plans, telling myself why it wouldn’t work.
And the main reason I convinced myself I couldn’t do it? Nothing to do with writing. I knew I could write, I knew I could help my clients. It was that I didn’t think I could connect with the right people in the first place. I was convinced that I couldn’t network.
The thought of ‘working a room’ with a cup of coffee and a croissant over a breakfast event made me groan inwardly. I’d organised workshops on ‘how to network’ in my previous work at a University careers service, so I knew the drill. And I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to focus on my goals for the event, to deploy social niceties to strike up small talk or exit smoothly to move on to a more influential target.
Of course, business networking doesn’t have to be like that – it can be authentic and fun. But not for me. It’s not how I have fun and it’s not how I like to meet people. At parties I’m the one washing up in the kitchen (chatting to fellow kitchen-lurkers while I do it). As an introvert, the way I enjoy getting to know people is in small groups, or one-to-one. Having conversations that last longer than five minutes.
And one of the brilliant things about self-employment, now I’m actually doing it, is that I don’t have to pretend anymore. I’ve not yet been to a networking meeting – though I’m not ruling it out now I feel more comfortable being myself.
Instead I got most of my clients this year through reaching out to people I was drawn to – because their work or ethos was something that resonated with me and because I thought I could help. And not everyone got back to me, of course not. But those who did, those I got to know over email or phone, they have been truly great people to work with. Both in business terms (we establish a solid brief and they pay on time!) and in people terms (we have lots to say to each other and lots to learn from each other).
So I’ve learned that I’m actually not so bad at networking. Really, what’s at the heart of networking is making a connection. And it’s far more valuable, in my book, to have a genuine connection with a few people than flash your name on a business card or LinkedIn profile to hundreds as window dressing.
My introversion gave me permission to go deeper with people – to take the time to get to know them better, understand what they wanted and needed and take our conversation from there.
I listened to people – properly listened to what they said (and what they didn’t say). Noticed when they got lit up about their work and when they didn’t. These are all things that come more naturally to us quiet, introverted types.
And I’ve noticed that I’m happier, more confident, and my clients like my work more when I spend less time trying to please them by playing some game and more time listening and being myself. Then I can focus my attention on them, their stories, their needs. If I’ve learned anything from this year of self-employment, it’s this: being yourself frees up your energy for your business and your clients. It’s the professional thing to do.
So, what would I say to myself, if I could go back three years?
Don’t talk yourself out of it! Your preference for quiet, for deeper conversation, for building relationships that matter to you is a business strength, not a weakness. You can connect with people – people you want to work with! You can do business on your own terms.
Be brave, woman. Get out there and do it!
Gayle Johnson is a freelance writer who works with businesses and causes that create positive change around personal wellbeing and community. www.redtreewriting.com