What Skateboarders can teach us about networking

If like me, the idea of a skateboarding park conjures up images of teenagers in hoodies and low slung trousers standing around and doggedly repeating (and failing) tricks and occasionally muttering a few monosyllables, you might have read the title somewhat incredulously. Bear with me…

I’ve recently watched my son Ben ease his way into his first graduate role. Several months in he seems to have settled in and made connections I would have dreamed of 5 years into my career. I’d like to think that it’s our combined parenting skill (and that’s possibly one ingredient along with genes)… and I remember being struck by his stories of making new friends as he traveled round Berkshire and Hampshire visiting skate parks. Even his mates seemed amazed at how easily he seemed to connect with and talk to complete strangers.

Me too – I know only too well that sensation of trepidation in a room full of strangers. The self imposed pressure of coming up with an interesting topic or question. Or worse still the fear of being ‘networked’ – that moment when someone greets you, talks to you briefly and then decides you don’t meet their ‘interesting’ criteria and moves on (not very subtly). So I asked him how he did it. Without pause for breath he said:

1. Find common ground – watch for a while, notice a trick they were doing well or working on.

2. Start a conversation – go up, say “Hi I’m Ben” and then ask them about how they did the trick. (The interesting part for me is his focus on them – their interest and what they were doing).

3. Keep it going – which could be anything from asking them to help him try it, to suggesting a kind of play off competition where one does a trick, the other copies it and you swap over.

OK, business networking isn’t exactly the same – and I think there are similarities. If you have both chosen to be at an event, you have potential common ground in the topic and speakers. An easy starting point for a break time conversation could be “What did you think of that last session?” and you could keep it going by asking “How is it useful for your work?”. In my experience most people like being asked questions and sharing their view. It’s more engaging than being on the receiving end of an elevator pitch.

And yet, I find myself saying – that sounds too simple. It’s not that easy when your inner voice is saying things like ‘Oh there you go again – you can’t think of a decent question can you?’ or ‘why would they be interested in what you have to say?’ (or is that just me?). And when you have these negative thoughts, it will show up in uncomfortable body language or a hint of something tentative in your voice – the opposite of the calm, confident, at ease version of you at your best. So what do you do?

My answer comes from my journey over nearly 12 years of playing saxophone. When I performed as part of a 40 person band for the first time I was so overwhelmed with nerves that I barely played a note. This is odd because if you give me a room of 600 people and a remit to host and facilitate an engaging event and I find that thought exciting. Of course I get some nerves and I know it’s going to be OK. Well the good news is that I’m nearly there with the saxophone. As I’ve done more and more concerts, the paralysing nerves have faded – because I know I’m going to be OK. And more than that I’ve started enjoying the sensation of connecting with my audience through music – it starts to be fun, even joyful. So my assumption is that in addition to those 3 simple things, there are 2 others which help:

1) Your mindset – 
walking in knowing you will be OK

2) Deciding to keep doing it – time and time again until it becomes familiar and those irrational sensations fade.

P.S. I thought I should show Ben this post before it went live… and he said “Yes – it’s about the ‘What ifs?’. What if… I look stupid/ get tongue tied/ don’t know what to say? And What if… you meet someone really interesting/ learn something/ have fun?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips… and if you like this post, do share it!

Alyse Ashton
Executive & team coach, facilitator and author of the Team Health Check

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