Do you network? Enjoy it? Loathe it? Most people I come across have, at some point in their life, found themselves in a situation where they are surrounded by strangers, and expected to communicate. Whether for business, in a social setting, by accident or design, it is probable that you have experienced some form of networking in its broadest sense. Why am I writing this? Well, in the past two weeks, I have been taken out of my comfort zone voluntarily in this manner not one, but three times!
The first of these was certainly the least daunting. Taking a break from the second day of Beach Dreams festival, I joined up with an enthusiastic bunch of local people keen to learn more about the stunning (and protected) flora on Shoreham Beach. Local volunteer organisation "Friends of Shoreham Beach" was looking for a photographer to accompany them on their annual Wild Flower Walk on Shoreham Beach, and I was happy to oblige!
I surmised that my fellow walkers would be friendly, nature-loving local people, but that didn't alter the slight trepidation I felt on joining a group of around twenty or so strangers, most of whom were talking eagerly to at least one other person. My shyness didn't last for long though, as a lady from Southwick Camera Club who I had met a couple of weeks previously at the Adur Festival launch party, remembered me and came over to talk photography - not a subject I have any problem taking about!
So things were going well until the group organiser introduced me, and asked the assembled crowd to choose which walking sub-group to join. I had an immediate flashback to school days, when the popular ones closed rank and ensured that sports teams were unfairly matched and the same kid would be picked last each time. The response to my only-half-joking "Anyone? Please?" did suggest that I was not the only one to have such deep-rooted memories, and happily I gained a bevy of photographers keen to talk f-stop and swap recommendations.
My plan had been to head over to the beach a few days' prior to the walk, to spend time photographing the flowers, leaving me free to socialise and answer questions on the day. In the event, I had run out of time, but the relaxed pace enabled me to easily combine the two tasks, and take some snaps of the photographers at the same time. Please enjoy the images I took during that hour and a half while I tell you about the other two networking situations I found myself in.
The second networking situation was arranged completely on a whim. Catching up with friends and business contacts on facebook, I came across a link to the networking group Mumpreneurs. On another day, I might have ignored it, but the source of the link roused my curiosity enough to click on it and see that their next meeting was to held in Shoreham the following day. I think I must have had cabin fever from the ton of editing that had been piling up while my PC was out of action, but something made me yearn to untie myself from my desk and meet new people.
I signed up online before I could talk myself out of it. Immediately on receiving the "Your registration is complete" message, I wondered if I would have anything in common with my fellow networkers, and why was I putting myself under more pressure? The fact that I only had 24 hours to worry about it helped, but having never been to any such meeting before, I spent an undue amount of time considering whether a dress or jeans was the way to go, and whether I would have to make a speech on my first time.
As it turned out, I could have worn either and not looked out of place (I plumped for a 'safe' skirt/jacket combo in the end), and the 'speech' was only a brief one minute introduction. Fifteen years back, even that would have petrified me and caused my face to flush, but age and motherhood does have its advantages, and I felt, whilst not exactly comfortable, at least as if I belonged there and had something to contribute. I suspect that quite a few of those there had felt similar trepidation at their first meeting, as there were lots of encouraging smiles and comments which helped to put me at ease. Quite a few attendees had brought along props, and the whole event was lighthearted and actually quite fun, once I'd got my introduction out of the way.
I had been slightly wrong in my surmise of the socio-demographic make-up of Mumpreneurs; there were two men present and at least one 'non-mum' female. For them, the rationale was more about a shared client-base rather than networking demographic. But I certainly felt like I fitted in for reasons other than simply motherhood, and I came away in a positive, upbeat mood. I decided that the move to take a couple of hours away from my desk to meet new people was a good one, and that I would definitely be returning. Facebook is great for sharing and staying in touch (it's been especially invaluable for me in the past year, enabling me to keep up with my friends in Florida without worrying about cost or time differences). But it can also be draining and a bit superficial and is certainly no substitute for face-to-face conversation.
These thoughts were obviously fresh in my mind when I agreed to my third event. The name - "Wedding Breakfast" - seemed innocuous enough, but when I enquired more deeply, it transpired that the meeting would be organised like a speed dating session, with each delegate (all suppliers to the wedding industry) spending five minutes with the person across the table from them before moving onto the next one.
Now, speed dating is not something I would normally consider. For a start, I will have been happily married for fifteen years in September, and so have no need for such activities. And even if I were single, I am sure speed dating would not be my chosen method of pursuit.
But the two organisers are also Shorehamites - Kelly who runs a successful local wedding and event company, Belles Events, and Helen, whose flourishing company Doily Days has earned her a semi-finalist spot in the Venus 'Networker of the year' awards. So they should know a thing or two about networking. And I figured that, having exhibited at one Kelly's wedding fairs, and attended two more, I would probably already know one or two of the eighteen wedding suppliers who were down to attend.
I was now on a networking roll, unfazed by such trivialities as what to wear. And I'm much more confident speaking one-to-one than making a speech, so really, when I gave it some thought, it didn't seem such a daunting proposition after all. The bigger challenge was getting into central Brighton at a time when I'm normally dropping the kids off at school, and so logistics became the focus of my thoughts, rather than the event itself.
By ten to nine last Thursday morning, I'd successfully navigated the logistics (hoorah for school breakfast clubs!), found a parking space (forgot how expensive Brighton parking is - will get the train next time) and arrived with time to spare! Result! I didn't even mind that I'd opted for a dress, and Kelly and Helen were in jeans. I had on some shoes I love, which definitely helped (female readers will understand), and had remembered my business cards.
Turned out that in addition to the two organisers, I had met three of the suppliers, including a very friendly hen party organiser and a photographer that I'd got on well with on last meeting, plus another whose work I'd admired online. Whilst the purpose of attending was not ostensibly to meet with other photographers, having lived abroad for so long, it's always useful to have industry contacts you feel confident in recommending when a customer wants a wedding date you've already booked, or last minute illness requires a substitute. In any case, business reasons aside, it's fun swapping bridezilla stories and techniques for off-camera flash!
Overall, my experience of networking as a forty-something photographer was fun, and very different from memories of early corporate meetings as a twenty-something truck export office manager and token-female-at-trade-shows/pharmaceutical magazine journalist/marketing consultant... and various other previous lives! It's definitely been good for me to spend some time in the real world. In fact, writing this blog has been the longest uninterrupted period I've spent at my desk for a while! And I've only checked facebook once!
Next week is all action - football by Adur Athletic U11s, to be precise. Following their recent and well-deserved "Sportmanship of the Year" accolade at last week's annual award ceremony, I've decided to blog some of the best action from the past season. Stay tuned...