Networking – the word strikes fear and brings it me out in a cold sweat.
I work in a finance department of a UK company. We have several offices around the country and also in Northern Europe. Once a year the finance teams all meet up at a company sponsored conference. This year, it was in Newcastle. I already knew I didn’t want to go but hadn’t been able to come up with any good excuses so get out of it – no holiday that had already been booked, no children to have to look after because the husband was away, that sort of thing. Believe me, I tried.
We caught first class trains up to Newcastle and arrived at pretty decent 4* hotel. After checking in, we met up at the hotel conference rooms for the obligatory power point presentation to show us exactly what we were going to be subjected to over the next to days – in sharp, crisp bullet points. Seriously, I don’t know why they bother with that bit. It takes half an hour, and if we left it out, we could all retire back to our hotel rooms half an hour early. But such is life.
Then we had the predictable getting to know you session. This time we had to pick a film title that said something about us. We only had a few minutes to come up with something and suddenly I could not think of a single film other than Bambi and Neon Demon (a film which had recently been premiered at Cannes, so you can guess what kind of film it might be). Obviously I couldn’t use Bambi, could I?
So the conference leader (Marcus, the Group Finance Director) goes around the group and each person comes out with their film title and why it relates to them. They’re all pretty forgettable, either that or I was still sweating out what I was going to say when it was my turn. Which is now! So I went with Neon Demon and said it’s because I like to wear neon colours at the weekend. I cringed inside as I said it, and imagined that everyone was looking at me oddly, or pityingly. The film is actually a gross out horror film if you’re interested, about a model trying to make it big in LA.
Then followed some awful team activity which involved brainstorming and sharing the rubbish that we’d come up with everyone else. These aren’t the worst parts of business conferences/team away days. At least it’s structured so you’re not drifting around relying on small talk.
The true horror is the coffee break. (Sorry I’m switching tenses here as I like to). I dread this part as it’s a free-for-all. Dispersing to the coffee machine and free mini pastries, we cluster in small groups around high little bar tables where there are no tall stools so you have to stand. Aware that my boss is lurking, I resist the temptation to seek the safety of hanging out with my colleagues from the London office (where I’m based). I’m sure he’d see that as weak and making the whole purpose of this networking opportunity redundant. I sidle up to a group who look reasonably friendly – they look like they could be a my level in the organisation. I introduce myself and then ask a little about them and their role. So contrived and on-script, I know, but people often say that I’ve had a sense of humour bypass and I was last in line when they were dishing out personality. Therefore after the initial introductions, I run out of things to say. I’m introvert and shy – I hate telling people anything about myself unless I can be anonymised. So I stand woodenly and fix a grin to my face and watch them talking to each other, hoping that I look like I’m part of this networking nodule. Sometimes I move my lips, so that at a distance it looks like I’m talking. It’s pretty obvious I’m just a bystander, as no one makes eye contact with me after the initial introductions. Feeling like my duty is done, I trot off to the ladies to kill time until coffee break is over and we can resume in some more structured corporate activity (analysis of Q1 results).