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  • Mark Calleja

Awkwardness: Because Sometimes Social Interaction Just Doesn’t Work – Part 1/2

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

-Mark Twain

We, as members of the STEM Industry, are often called upon to attend the dreaded ‘networking event’ from time to time. It may be in the form of a convention, gathering, meeting, away day or a myriad of other creative and whimsical words that really boil down to one thing - prolonged speaking to strangers. For some of us, this is no problem; those who have had training in networking and conversational skills or are naturally charismatic and confident, but not everyone (read: not many) in the tech industry have had this particular skill beaten into us by slick, suited motivational coaches or lecturers at business school.

I myself am actually a primary school teacher by trade; so all of my confidence and management training was focused on working with people who were at a severe size and experience disadvantage when weighing up the power dynamic between us. That, and my position of unassailable authority next to the board at the front of the room (honed by generations of cultural norms) and things were pretty smooth sailing. But when asked to go to networking or training events, I was less confident in my ability to easily communicate with my peers than with seven year olds. So, I did a lot of people watching and experimenting and now I’m actually pretty good at it.

You want to know the dirty secret about seeming confident? All confidence is fake, at least at first. My parents had always told me that confidence isn’t something you have, it’s something you create for yourself by believing that you can ‘pull something off’. The old adage of ‘fake it til you make it’ is actually a truism. Confidence is a projection that people generate (not a genetic trait, whatever you might think!) and once you can do it, you’ll find it’s really easy to generate again next time. ‘Making it’ in this sense is your ability to use your confidence like an amour whenever you please, no matter what the situation. I’m going to show you some simple tricks that I used to help forge that armour from scratch, so you can put it on any time you need it.

Which brings me back to Twain’s quote above: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” This quote is often misinterpreted by the average person to mean that ‘you can be dumb as long as you’re confident’ or that ‘it’s only dumb, forceful people who succeed’. It doesn’t mean either of these things, and it’s almost a disservice to Twain to think of it that way. If anyone knows about created confidence, it’s Mark Twain. That isn’t even his real name; it’s actually Samuel Langhorn Clemens - far less dashing.

Twain chose his nom de plume not only for it’s catchy sound, but for its technical meaning among the Mississippi riverboat men (the measurement of two fathoms deep) which would evoke the right tone for his work if you knew that, but still sounded cool and romantic if you didn’t. It helps in the interpretation of his quote to know that Twain was a ‘chancer’ his whole life, a man who often took risks and succeeded by blagging his way through, by having good friends and acquaintances find him opportunities, and by being a generally positive and hardworking guy.

Let’s focus on the latter part of Twain’s iconic statement first, as confidence is the bit that everyone understands. Initially, your confidence will be fake; that’s totally fine and really normal. It has been much quoted that bravery is ‘being scared and doing it anyway’, which also defines confidence pretty well. Just as paratroopers learn not to fear the jump by building confidence over time, so will you - you just have to jump that first time and trust you’ll be fine. Because you will, I promise.

Here are some simple tricks I use to portray confidence when attending a networking event. Some of them might seem obvious, but if that’s the case then you’re already further along the way to being a confident networker than you thought!

Cultivating Confidence

Body language: Don’t cross your arms: it makes you seem defensive and unapproachable. Even if you are doing the approaching, a conversation goes two ways! If you’re nervous and don’t know what to do with your hands, get a drink or some food. (Don’t put them in your pockets.)

A smile is approachable: I’m not going to tell you to ‘smile’, but it does make you much more approachable in social situations. Nobody wants to speak with the event grump, these things are hard enough already!

Eye-contact on meeting: If you’re not great at eye contact, make sure that you get it done early on (during the handshake is best), but try not to give anyone the ‘death stare’! A good solid eye contact when you first meet someone is good, as you can pretend you’re interested in the goings on around you during the conversation if you’re not that great at keeping it up

Firm handshake (but not a death-grip!): nobody wants to handle a limp fish, nor does anybody want their knuckles crushed. You should stand square on with your heart facing them, right hand forward and toward their right side a little (your left). Touch palms and wrap your fingers around their hand, just a bit. 3-5 shakes is enough. (Advanced technique: If anyone turns your hand under theirs in the classic ‘power move’, just put your other hand on top and smile warmly, shaking with both, then disconnect before it gets weird.)

No worries: None of this is going to dramatically affect your life in a negative way, and it’s all about getting better so don’t get too caught up in your own head about it. Use events as practice to try out new tricks and behaviors that you think you’d like to adopt. Test your new confidence and begin to act in ways you normally wouldn’t - you might find a really useful new technique or trick that helps you become even more confident! My favorite trick at conferences where I don’t know anybody is to pretend it’s a party at my place, and see if there’s anyone I can help. “Oh hey, how’s it going? Are you enjoying the event? What have you come here for, can I help you achieve something today?” Boom. Friends everywhere.

Be prepared: Apart from simply having your own business cards ready to hand out, have some things up your sleeve that you can use to keep a conversation going or start a new one. I often find out about the building, or the history of the area where the event is held. It’s a great non-committal way to inject something interesting into a conversation you are having. “Did you know the sconces at this hotel were designed by Gaudi?” while you can use news stories, avoid political topics (as will be explained later.)

Be ignorant: Not in the modern sense, but in the Twain sense. I’ll explain.

So what do I and Mark Twain mean when we say to cultivate your ignorance? It’s really simple - understand that you don’t know everything and make every event an opportunity to learn new things by asking questions. Buddhists call it the ‘Beginner's Mind’. The reason this will help you is manifold; you’ll stop being worried that you don’t have the answers or aren’t as smart as everyone else, you’ll find loads of great ways to open or continue conversations and it will make you a very popular and positive conversational partner as people always love to teach others about things - it makes them feel smart and important. Plus, you’ll be learning heaps of new stuff!

Some tips to adopt a Beginner’s Mind

Let go of any preconceptions you have about ‘how things work’: you can speak to the CEO, people who are not directly involved with your area can be really helpful/useful contacts, speaking to as many people as possible often isn’t the way to lasting, quality connections, asking about something until you understand isn’t annoying. In fact, it’s often endearing.

Eliminate Expectations: don’t assume anything. Walk into every new meeting as though this person has something vital, they just don’t know it yet. Look for something useful in every meeting you enter, even if it’s just a new contact you might use later.

Cultivate Curiosity: You know sometimes you’re having a conversation with someone and the imp in the back of your brain asks a weird, wacky, far-out question or hypothetical about what they’re saying? Ask it out loud. (As long as it’s not offensive!) Often you’ll give someone a new perspective on something they consider mundane; which can strike new conversations, or at the very least make you a memorable meeting for the other person.

Ask Simple Questions: I often ask people to ‘explain like I’m five’ when they’re talking about what they do, or a big project they are working on. It gives me a nutshell idea to see how we can usefully collaborate and identify those opportunities. From there, I can ask a series of simple questions to reframe their thoughts to focus more on what I’m trying to achieve. Once you break a concept down to its most basic level, you can begin to explore the parts of the idea that appeal to you, or fit with your aims at the event. The obvious added bonus is you will now have a solid understanding of the other’s perspective for future collaboration and have learned something new in the process!

So, now that you’re equipped with tips to cultivate both confidence and ignorance, you are well on your way to leading a success life. I hope you have found some value in the above guidelines. Be sure to stay tuned for part two of two of this blog series where we’ll dive into ‘technology’ behind conversations, including how to get them going, how to close them, and really how to make the most of discussions you have at these events.

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