by Charlie Lawson
In July 2008, I attended an old school friend’s wedding. David and I are part of a group of eight friends that have stayed in close contact. Today, now with wives and partners (and ever-increasing numbers of children), we’ve all remained close.
David’s wedding to Lottie was on one of those amazing days when the British weather manages to do what it is supposed to do in summer. The venue was a stately home near Crewe, where every room, with the antique furniture, paintings and fittings looked wonderful.
The regular wedding traditions were all there: after the wedding ceremony itself, all the guests were mingling and chatting on the lawn in front of the house, getting stuck into the Pimms. Dinner was then served, followed by speeches, cutting the cake, the first dance, and of course lots more booze.
During the day, I noticed something. Whenever people were chatting, I only talked to my group of friends. For the wedding ceremony, I sat myself next to people who I knew already.
When the guests went to sit down for dinner, the seating plan dictated that I would be next to people who I knew well. OK, not my choice there, but it still suited me fine to not be next to strangers, and not to have to make uncomfortable small talk. As the evening progressed, the dance floor became busier and busier. I, with my two left feet, preferred to sit and chat with my friends.
Not once did I make the effort to go and speak to someone new, someone I didn’t know, someone different. It’s not exactly difficult to start up a conversation at a wedding. Everyone is (generally) happy to be there. There is a shared connection with literally every guest (i.e. we all knew David & Lottie). So I had the opportunity to meet new people, but I just didn’t want to.
Why was this? I run a business networking organisation! I meet new people all day every day! I spend my entire professional time talking to people. What was the difference here? Indeed, at work, I’ll not only be meeting new people, I’ll be up in front of them, speaking and training. So, not only do I spend a lot of time networking, I also train people how to network! Surely I should have no problem talking to people and socialising at a relaxed occasion like a wedding.
But the fact remains that I did have a problem with chatting to people at David & Lottie’s wedding. I had no inclination whatsoever to put myself out of my comfort zone.
So, in the context of a business article, why am I discussing a wedding? In a business context, we use the term ‘networking’ (and that word can be off-putting to lots of people). In social circumstances, we call it talking to people. In fact, it’s exactly the same thing.
David and Lottie’s wedding got me thinking. I started considering how I like to interact with people. I came to a conclusion. I don’t really enjoy meeting new people very much!
It is true: I can categorically state, that I, as the head of the UK and Ireland arm of the world’s largest and most successful business referral and networking organisation, do not like networking! There, I’ve said it.
But why? Why is it that I am perfectly comfortable networking when I ‘have to’, but when I don’t, it is the last thing I want to do? That is the question that has driven me to understand myself better professionally since I first asked it. It’s the question that has led me to want to put down what I’ve learned in a book. I hope that others who feel the same about talking to other people can find the confidence within themselves to network.
You see, I’m not bad at networking. I know that in my professional life I’m very good at it. I can very easily enter a room of strangers, introduce myself, and get to know something about them. I know I can leave with follow up opportunities. I can also happily jump on stage, and present how to grow a business through the power of networking.
It’s just that for me, networking is not something that is naturally in my comfort zone. My natural preference and state of being is not to be out there, talking to everyone. I’m far happier sitting back, taking everything in, and spending my time with people who I care about. But I can manage networking if I want to: it’s just whether I want to or not. If I can persuade myself to take a step out of my comfort zone, I know I can network just as effectively as anyone else.
In essence, many of us are Unnatural Networkers.
Charlie Lawson is a networking expert and author of “The Unnatural Networker”. He is also the UK and Ireland director of BNI, the world’s largest networking referral organisation. He helps fellow entrepreneurs who are struggling to find networking confidence. For more information, visit www.bni.co.uk.