If I had to sum up in two words the ‘key’ to networking and communication within my experience of the development sector, it really is as simple as be yourself. Believe me I both know and hate how cliché that sounds, but as my mum (and many others before her) have told me time and time again if you tell the truth you don’t have to have a good memory. Well as someone who absolutely does not have a good memory this quote has always resonated with me as a reminder of the true value of authenticity.
I often feel as though ‘networking’ carries this underlying feeling of immense dread, particularly with students. I distinctly remember when I first began the MIDP program being invited to numerous networking events. In my head I pictured this to be politely making small talk with older people in suits, while simultaneously staring down the waiters/waitresses carrying trays of mouth-watering appetisers, boy was I wrong!
In 2015 I was selected as one of eight students as an intern for the Monash University Global Discovery Program, launching in New York. In the pre-departure briefing it was drilled into us that a key part of this program would be to expand our networks. We were after all spending our days meeting with people in key leadership positions across a variety of organisations, ranging from the development, finance, media, technology and political sectors.
To say I was nervous at our first meeting with Katherine Oliver, a senior principal at Bloomberg Associates is a gross understatement. In the words of Eminem my ‘palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms were heavy.’ However within the first five minutes my nerves had subsided. Katherine opened with a statement about her childhood and how one small but humorous experience shaped her life perspective and thus career trajectory.
There were two learnings I derived from the way she communicated with us. Firstly, small though Katherine’s childhood analogy may have been, it almost humanised her, despite her status as one of the most powerful figures in New York, and this was vital in creating a comfortable and relaxed environment. Secondly, the importance of using personal narrative to engage and leave a lasting impression.
Upon returning home the eight of us were invited to a high profile alumni dinner. On my table I was the only female and the youngest by approximately 30-40 years. I will admit I expected nothing more than moderate small talk or to largely be ignored. Again, boy was I wrong!
Being the ‘youthful’ guest I was somehow able to capture everyone’s attention through divulging my own personal narrative and particularly decisions and life experiences that had lead me to pursue a career in the development sector and landed me in New York for the internship.
We went from awkwardly nibbling at our bread rolls to each sharing stories of the past, highlighting key life events, vividly describing hilarious family stories and thus creating an open, social and informal environment, where we were really given the opportunity to learn about one another on a personal and professional level. What’s better? A good 8-10 business cards were exchanged that night, solidifying professional relationships.
Although certain situations may call for it, networking doesn’t always have be rigid and formal. The key is to assert your emotional intelligence and identify ways in which to ‘break the ice’ with your counterpart to really keep the conversation flowing. Also don’t forget to leave something tangible, whether that is a business card, linked-in add or the all-important follow up e-mail to guarantee you’ll be a face and name that won’t be forgotten easily.
I want to draw back on the idea of ‘authenticity’ in communication, a notion often undervalued in professional contexts, at least I feel it is. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘this is a strictly professional environment’ and how many times has that made you fearful of doing or saying the ‘wrong thing.’
My question is who defines what exactly constitutes as professional communication, and is our current interpretation of this concept necessarily applicable in all contexts. Does it always have to translate into stiff and awkward behaviour, and a competition to see who can best impress prospective employers and hand out the most business cards?
Don’t get me wrong, by no means am I suggesting you down as many of the available alcoholic beverages as possible and proceed to rambunctiously intrude on each and every conversation, giving everyone a friendly ‘slap on the back’ (yes I have seen this happen). What I’m trying to get at is once you’ve built rapport with the person it’s okay to drop the front, there’s nothing wrong with staying true to yourself. In fact people are often drawn to you when you’re more relatable and exuding ‘good vibes,’ and believe me this doesn’t happen when you’re feeling pressure to impress and put on a ‘perfect’ front.
My mentor once told me, something that stood out to her when we first started communicating was the honesty and vulnerability in the way I spoke, the way I would reference personal life experiences explain my perspective and detail what I want to do and why, and in her opinion not afraid to constantly ask questions (truth be told I was a little afraid haha..). She constantly reiterated that if I remember nothing else as I navigate my way through this sector, to retain that open and honest communication in all my personal and professional interactions. This goes to show, the way in which I communicate, something I’d always assumed would be my downfall is in fact something that she believes is integral to one’s journey within the sector.
I hope after reading this, you have to some degree seen some value in my mum’s favourite phrase- If you tell the truth you don’t have to have a good memory. Yes, I truly do believe this applies to networking and communication in the development sector.