Hello, My Name is Awkward: Navigating Networking

By Maria Pianelli

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u1I’m going to be straight with you.

The only thing that gives me more anxiety than networking events is ordering lunch for my coworkers. Give me a PR plan to write, tell me I need to staff a few interviews, drown me in hours worth of writing, fine. I can do all that from my desk, with my headphones in, without worrying if I’m smiling enough or if I have a piece of salad in my teeth. But put me in front of colleagues — let it be entrepreneurs, journalists or fellow PR people — and suddenly I’m 11 years old on the first day of middle school.

I’m not a newbie by any means. I’ve been in PR for two years and have been to more than my fair share of conferences, meet up groups and happy hours. Even still, the thought of being calm, cool and collected in front of large groups of people — and approaching others, out of the blue, by myself — ties my stomach in knots. Saying hi should be easy enough. I have industry experience, I keep close tabs on innovation and I’d like to think I have a nice enough personality. But then I see them — that PR cliche. Blown out hair, flawless makeup, sky-high heels and sleek black clothes. PR Girl has a million watt smile and a firm handshake. She sniffs out important contacts a mile away and dazzles them with well-rehearsed, highly energetic speeches about her clients. And unlike me, she doesn’t spill coffee on herself as soon as someone interesting approaches.

At first, I felt like an impostor. How the hell was I supposed to follow confidence like that? So I did what any awkward millennial would do — I beelined for the cheese plate in the corner.

As it turns out, journalists, media gurus, and startup founders need to eat too, because eventually, once PR Dream Girl stopped chewing their ears off, the conference headliners made their way to the table. Their eyes brightened as towering platters of Mediterranean sandwiches came into view and suddenly, I had my chance to break the ice.

I had rehearsed this moment. One liners about my clients. Anecdotes on all the cool and interesting projects they were working on. A simple — “Hey! I loved your panel.” Any of those things would have been perfect. But instead…

“Wow, look at all that feta. I’m way too excited about this.”

Mortifying, but apparently food is a great segue. Twenty minutes later, I had passed out all my business cards and was delighted by the new relationships blossoming before me, folks I still keep in touch with to this day.

I’m awkward. I talk too fast, don’t smile enough, at some point during a conference, I’ll inevitably spill something on myself. I’m not PR Dream Girl, I’m not going to gush over a pre-rehearsed speech. But I’m real. I’m quirky, relatable and hopefully someone you’ll want to work with.

I make a point to correspond with those I meet at shows, as well as the companies and journalists I work with on a daily basis. I don’t always stick to business – I’ll ask about their day, see how life is treating them and share a few stories about myself. I’m a big believer in authenticity –the same Maria who goofs off with her college friends and  goes on hikes with her family, who rocks out to music at her desk and suffers from wanderlust, is the PR person popping up in your inbox and shaking your hand at conferences.

Networking is scary. Terrifying, actually. But don’t feel pressured to reinvent yourself — reporters, PR people, founders and CEOs are all people and, when you treat them as such, business evolves both organically… and more meaningfully.

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