I remember the words well. “You must push yourself forward and speak up – or you’ll get trampled on.”
They were spoken by my primary school teacher, who was at the time trying to console me after I’d burst into tears. The reason? I’d written a short story my teacher liked so much that she’d asked me to come to the front of the class and read it out loud to everyone. What my teacher thought of as a great honour had absolutely terrified this excruciatingly shy eight year-old.
That moment had somehow seemed to define my childhood. I just couldn’t find a way to “push myself forward and speak up” that felt comfortable. Unlike my outspoken and playful younger sisters, my head was always in a book and I did everything I could to get out of going to parties, or anywhere I felt I would have to ‘perform’.
My teacher’s words echoed through my head (many!) years later, as I sat in a draughty hall with twenty-six other people, all of us wearing plastic-encased name tags. I had recently started working for myself, and I’d decided to join a local networking group so I could make some new business connections. It'd seemed a good idea at the time.
Twenty-seven people squidged together in a hall, all of us jostling for an opportunity to sell what we did, felt an alien and uncomfortable place to be. My energy drained away; I could feel my palms sweating and my throat drying up as the moment came round for each of us in turn to stand up and give a minute-long description of our business.
My heart threatened to leap out of my chest as I scraped back my chair and stood up. My words came out shakily but I got through it, and after the meeting I went home, shut the door and sighed. Surely there had to be a better way to grow good business relationships?
Luckily, business networking in person became far easier the more times I’ve tried it, and I’ve met some really fantastic people this way. But there are still days on which I find it hard to “push myself forward”, and on those days I find it really useful to think about and try other ways of connecting, instead.
If you can struggle with introducing yourself properly in person, finding your own tribe of people to connect with in writing can be a true confidence-builder. In my case, I started by making a list of the types of people whom I felt it would be useful to connect with, and then set out to find them by...
- giving my business cards to my friends and family to pass on to people they liked,
- searching social media for people with relevant job titles and sending them personal messages asking if they would be interested in working with me,
- researching companies I admired and seeking out someone who worked there to ask if they could possibly spare me some time talking about the company and their job over a coffee.
Now if you’re anything like me, even the thought of sending messages like this will seem really daunting at first! What if you’re bothering people? Why would they want to talk to you when they’re so busy? What if they simply read your message, laugh and press Delete? Or worse, contact you to tell them what an imposition you were on their extremely busy day?
The reality is, it’s far more likely that the people you choose will be flattered to receive a personally tailored message in amongst all the spam they receive on a daily basis.
Crafting something individual shows how you’ve taken the time to understand who they are and what they're able to offer (it’s a secret no-one ever tells you that people actually love to know this, because most of us are naturally helpful. If you knew exactly how you could help someone and it was possible for you to do it then more often than not you would, wouldn't you?) - and offering something myself in return, even if it was just the coffee!
This method worked – and continues to work – wonderfully well for me. Building connections online and through friends means I can create a personal first impression in the way I’m best at; in writing, or through somebody I already know. This means that when I meet them in person, it’s on an individual basis which enables me to thrive in a way I’m just not always able to in a large group.
So if you’re struggling to make connections and "push yourself forward" – why not consider trying to make an impression in writing? And if you happen to need some help getting started…well, let’s just say I know a fantastic writer you could get in contact with!