Networking, Small Talk and Being Out of Your Comfort Zone

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I’m Ally – Head of Talent at 101 Ways – and I have a fear of small talk. That might be surprising to hear considering I get paid to talk for a living and often have to call people I’ve never spoken to before. But when I admit to people that I dread networking events, even with almost a decade’s experience in the industry, I always get the response: ‘But you’re so confident and chatty, surely you love going? Actually no, I get a lot of anxiety about it. 
When I know people and have built a basic level of social trust, then yes I am likely to be the most talkative one in the group. But when start a conversation with someone I don’t know, I picture physically jumping out of my body and pushing myself forward to start chatting to someone new. That is when the nerves start, my mind goes blank and I completely forget how to speak.
There’s a moment of relief when someone takes the initiative and starts talking to me and I air-five myself ‘Yessss I am networking!’ but then said person needs the toilet or another drink and I am left standing awkwardly on my own, wondering what to do with my hands.
If we paint a picture of the last WTF event – I was the most comfortable in the room when at the door ticking off people’s names off the guest list or offering them a drink, but if that isn’t an option then standing in the corner pretending to WhatsApp someone is the most favourable choice.
My WTF co-founder Emma, once told me that the easiest way to network at an event, is to do a talk, as everyone is more willing to chat to the speaker afterwards. So at that previous event, that’s exactly what I did. And what better thing to talk about that the anxiety caused  by small talk.
I did some research and there is apparently nothing fundamentally wrong with me (phew!); what I have is ‘conversation anxiety’ and it’s very common. With that in mind, I’ve set out a few things I (and you) can do to help ease the stress of having to instigate the chats.
1.) You are not alone – The first thing to remember is that you are not the only one who feels like this.When at an event, ‘target’ people like yourself and go up to them and say hello – like you would be, they are probably relieved that someone is talking to them.
2.) Tell me why – Understand why you are nervous about starting the conversation. For me it’s because I don’t think I have anything interesting to say and that pauses or silences make me feel incredibly nervous. To counter this, I attempt to undertake ‘positive self-talk’; this is internally saying positive affirmations to boost your confidence and turning negative thoughts on their head by seeking out the positive. The best thing about it is the more you do it, the easier it becomes. 
3.) Hear me out – Be a good listener and ask lots of questions. The best piece of advice my brother gave me is: ‘Being interested is interesting’. You can actually have a whole discussion without revealing anything about yourself simply by asking people questions about themselves. Bonus is they will think you are lovely because by nature humans like sharing things about ourselves – I certainly do!
4.) Ask and you shall receive – Have go to questions ready, including some curve balls!

  • How did you get to where you are now?
  • What do you love about your job?
  • Do you think the industry is going to face a few challenges over the next few years / how is that going to affect what you do?
  • If you could be any kind of vegetable what would you be? (For the record I’d be a cauliflower, mainly because I’m blonde and tall). 

You have to be willing to experience the discomfort because it will pay off in the long run. Once you’ve started stepping out of your comfort zone more often, the main thing is to remember those winning conversations that you’ve instigated. That way, when the fear crops up again in the future, use those memories to help you push forward and keep doing it. 
For more advice on how to build confidence and meet like-people in the industry, why not join our WTF community? Our next event is on 14 November 2019 at Argos and this time we’ll be talking about all things feedback – watch this space for the registration link!