It’s only when standing in a room full of strangers that you realize networking is not at all as easy as it seems. In fact, it might be the hardest thing a young professional has to do, and unfortunately, one of the most important things McGill doesn’t teach us.
Last weekend, I attended a conference in Ottawa for political junkies where we heard from notable Canadian political figures like Prime Minister Stephen Harper and New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton. I didn’t feel intimidated by these great politicians, but I was intimidated by my peers. The students at the conference were intelligent, well-versed in Canadian political history, but most importantly, knew how to shake hands and make small talk.
While I was first in line to take a picture with the politicians, my friends were first to introduce themselves to each other. I was surprised that during the rare and short five-minute breaks, my friends didn’t run to grab a glass of water or a snack, but instead used their limited free time to network with one another. It soon became painfully aware to me that small talk wasn’t my best asset. For a girl who wants to pursue a career in journalism or politics, this revelation felt like a flashing red danger light that my future might be in jeopardy. So, am I totally doomed? The short answer is yes, but my inner optimist suggests there’s still some hope for me and other timid people.
Queen’s University career counsellor Cathy Keates says that the social component of conferences or events are extremely valuable for students. Work relationships are fostered and new friendships are made. She believes that it can be very intimidating, but it’s something you can get over once you get used to it.
When I thought about how this weakness might affect my future, I realized, as with any other problem, that the first step is admitting I have one. I feel uncomfortable in social situations where I must ask fellow students what organization they are a part of, what student leadership positions they’ve attained, and which 50 extra-curricular activities they’ve participated in. However, students who are about to graduate need to perfect this small talk, since the ability to relate to other people, communicate effectively, and promote yourself is a part of the lifelong job process we are about to embark upon. Even if we have the skills and experience required for a job, if we can’t sell ourselves, we won’t even be considered. If I let my belief that I don’t have this skill stop me from even trying, then yes, I am “doomed.” But the point is that I don’t have to be.
I can change my skills. Four years at McGill have taught me more about interacting with books and computers than about interacting with students and teachers. Now that I’ve recognized it, I’m ready to change. Granted, it won’t be easy, and will probably be awkward as I maneuver social situations asking strangers personal questions, but it will be something that will get easier.
The first step starts with acquiring confidence. Soon-to-be graduates like myself feel intimidated leaving the protective school bubble and entering a new social environment. But we’ve been educated at one of the best universities in the world, and with that should come pride, not shyness.
Probably the most important thing to do is just to put yourself out there. Yes, it’s awkward and difficult the first 10 times, but I know that if I try hard enough, it will get easier, because at every new event I can meet people who will help me foster greater confidence in myself as I practice meeting other new people.
And the next time I attend a conference, I will be the one ready to network with both the presenters and the audience during those brief, precious free moments.