I’m going to give you a heads up from the start that this post went a little off-piste from where I thought it was going to go. I could have subtitled it “How to survive in a room full of strangers”, but practicing scary shiz is all part of investing in yourself so I’m sticking with it!
At the end of last week I went to the inaurgoral Cambridge Social Media Day, hosted at the fantastic new Storey’s Field Community Centre. It was the first local conference like this I have attended as I ususally have to go to London of further afield for such events. The whole thing was organised by the great Lenka Kappova who does so much locally for small business
I had bought an early bird ticket (which was a steal!) months ago on a whim and had sort of forgotten it was happening until the week before.
I find it very hard to take a whole day away from my business, especially at this time of year when I feel like I need to be 100% on top of things 100% of the time (though in reality, the only thing I’m 100% aware of is my to do list!!).
However, I’m also aware of the need to maintain perspective, which means taking advantages of opportunities like this to step back, talk to other people and discover different ways to look at life and business and, well, social media in this case.
So off I went, driving through rush hour traffic for the first time in goodness knows how long (I don’t like it!). I had that horrible awks feeling as I walked in and remembered I didn’t know a single person going. I had refused to let myself think about that before I picked up my lanyard because being scared about being the loner in the corner would only have been a waste of time.
I scanned the room and did not see one single familiar face. Just lots of other people who all *seemed* to know each other. “Oh crap” I thought. “I need coffee”.
So I found myself in the coffee queue next to a lady wearing an awesome silver skirt with some additional sequin sweater action. I was reminded of the In Colourful Company walks I had been on and immediately felt a bit more at home, then I complemented her on her shiny fabric selection.
Top Tip 1:
When trying to make conversation with strangers, start by (genuinely) complementing them on something, or show interest in something they are wearing or carrying or looking at. People feel relaxed when they are talking about something they know about and it’s fairly safe to assume they dressed themselves or know what they put in their bag.
That first breaking of the silence, of talking to a stranger is always a relief to get out of the way. Though turning round to a packed foyer and not knowing where to start still made my stomach lurch. Fortunately I didn’t have long before the start of the conference to try to mingle.
Top Tip 2
It’s hard to do, but you just have to leave your self-consciousness at the door in these kinds of situations. You have no idea how many other people there might also hate networking, or might love it and be looking for the one person they don’t know yet (i.e. you). Everyone will be thinking something different but what they all have in common is that they are way more concerned about themselves than about you. It’s a truism about humans that I learned from Helen Fielding.
Just as I was going in, I saw someone I had met at an event several months back and had had some on line interactions with since. It was like the clouds parted and the trumpets sounded, so I made a beeline for her as we entered the conference and felt a wave of relief. How interesting the impact one familiar face can have in a strange situation.
After a fun, energetic and thought provoking opening keynote on how to win at social from Andrew and Pete, it was like everyone (or maybe jut me) was warmed up and afterwards I just got chatting to anyone and everyone in my path.
Top Tip 3
Queues are a great opportunity to start a conversation. Even if it’s with an idle comment that the pastries had still better be fresh by the time you get to the front. I had lots of interesting queue conversations, often starting off talking about the venue (it’s brand new and was nominated for an architectural award) before meandering down more interesting avenues.
I remember, as kids my siblings and I would take the piss out of our parents when we would go to big family gatherings and all they seemed to talk about was the roads they had driven on and how bad the traffic was. Adults are so boring, who cares about roads (except why they aren’t painted the same colour as they are on the map?) I used to think. Now I understand that small talk is a vital tool to get us started, sometimes even when with family.
So the rest of the day flew by. Though social media may not be your thing, it would be remiss of me not to share some of what I learned, so here are my top line takeaways from each of the sessions I went to (without giving away the farm).
Andrew and Pete – Keynote
The 90/10 rule: Spend 90% of your efforts doing one thing you love (and your audience responds to). Do that one thing really well and do it consistently. The other 10% is for experimenting
Let go of the need to do ALL the things.
Find the fun!
Nicole Osborne of Lollipop social – Creating an Irresistible Brand on Social
Online Marketing is a contest for people’s attention and the only advantage you have is the uniqueness of you.
Understand your own voice, values and visuals and communicate these.
Know who you are not!
Be The Hoff
Rachel Extance – Storytelling
Stories can inspire action, elicit memories and emotions.
They can bring us to common ground. The universal storylines like the heroes journey can be sparked using a single image. The consumer will fill in the blanks.
Know your stories, know your customer’s stories. Tell them both.
Natalie Hailey of Hot Content – Work Smarter
Instead of feeling the need to continually pump out new material (whether content or product), reverse your efforts. Spend more energy sharing your existing work in new and creative ways instead of creating new work no one will get to see.
Repurpose your efforts in formats not seen before to reach new audiences.
Slow down, do less, obsess
Nicky Pasquier – Leveraging Visual Content
Humans brains are visual processors. We learn much more quickly from images than words.
Combining words with images increases understanding further. (As a pressman aside, I think this is why Pinterest is such a winner!)
Build a visual style, attract your followers and engage with them.
Pictures, Polls, Memes and Video
Tim Lewis of Stoneham Press – Is Organic Facebook Growth Dead?
I laughed a lot at this talk. I enjoyed it so much that I actually asked a question in the Q&A. I have never done that before in my life!
Look at facebook from a different perspective.
Instead of just posting and expecting engagement, use the platform to get in front of the right people. Become an authority in other groups, answer questions, build a reputation, ask for feedback and do your market research!
Leverage the brutal honesty of the facebook group member!
This awesome visual notes document by the fantastic Anne-Marie from Carbon Orange gives a much better overview of the day!
It was a full on day but so much more fun than I anticipated. I came away feeling motivated, energised and buzzing and absolutely knackered at the same time. It’s a strange brain state, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it!
So often you go to these kinds of events and a lot of the content is stuff that you already know. You just need someone to remind you and to help you come up with new ideas on how you can make it work for you.
It’s as much about asking yourself questions as it is about getting the answers from others.
And the over all message of the day?
Before I sign off to continue putting some of my ideas into practice, I’ll leave you with my last tip which I do my best to apply everyday as well as in a room full of strangers!
Top Tip 4
Stay curious. Ask questions and follow-ups based on the answers to the first questions to show you’re actually listening. You never know what you’re going to discover.
I learned a lot about therapies I had never heard of and about what data visualisation actually means. I got a great recommendation for a coaching school and I met someone who it turned out had followed a fairly parallel career path to me, she was in another creative field but it is so reassuring to know you’re not ‘the only one’. As a freelancer it’s so easy to feel isolated which is another reason to force yourself to go meet others who understand!
As I mentioned at the start, this post was not meant to be about how to survive networking events without having a panic attack. It was intended to celebrate the value of taking the time and money to invest in yourself. The Cambridge Social Media Day was an incredibly useful day for me in terms of the content of the talks and discussions and the networking. But more than that, it also served as an exercise in reminding myself what amazing things lie outside my comfort zone.
That is a life lesson well worth the investment!