Another approach to approaching recruiters

If you read my last post, then you know that I attended the Chicago Tech Job Fair last week and experienced some mixed results. And now you also know that regardless of whether you read it. As I mentioned in that post, I want to briefly reflect on how I approached the recruiters.

Now, I am no means an expert (quite the opposite, in fact), but hopefully having my thoughts here will help somebody else. Continue reading

“Sorry, we’re only looking for….”

Like many universities, my school held a job fair every semester. Because it was a science/engineering university, said fairs were extremely technology oriented. Most of the companies present were in the software, biotech, or petroleum industries.

Every semester, I (and my colleagues in the Technical Communication program) would show up bright eyed and hopeful, clutching our expertly crafted resumes and the portfolios that cost a mint in color printing fees. And every semester we left disheartened–heads bowed and feet shuffling–after wasting an hour or more hearing, over and over, “Sorry, we’re only looking for software developers… engineers… science majors….”

Or worse: “Sorry, I don’t know what technical communication is.”

Or even worse: “Well I’m sure we have a call center position open–that’s what you mean by ‘technical communication,’ right?”

We got used to it. It was a miracle and a thing to be celebrated when somebody did know our field. Further, in those incredibly rare instances when somebody actually had a tech writing position available, jaws could be heard hitting the floor clear across campus.

Surely, I thought, things would be different in the Real World. Technology and software companies these days almost always have customer-facing help, or at least some sort of documentation.

So imagine my horror when I attended the Chicago Tech Job Fair (sponsored by techfetch and the Illinois Technology Association) on February 7th and experienced a horrible feeling of deja vu. I walked into the room, and it looked almost exactly like those dreaded college job fairs: two rows of tables in the middle, and tables lining the walls, each boasting giant foam board or poster board displays about the company in question. The tables all had pamphlets, business cards, sheets with job descriptions, or other propaganda. The companies were even giving out free branded junk, such as pens or staplers. The free swag was often the highlight of my university job fair experience.

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Chicago Tech Job Fair

I almost walked out on the spot. After all, as a shy introvert, I have a hard enough time approaching strangers and trying to convince them I’m worth hiring. If it was going to be anything like my college experience, why deal with the stress of talking to recruiters who don’t care about my field–only to leave with disappointment and no prospects?

I decided to give it a shot anyway, mainly because I recognized one of the companies. A company I knew hired technical writers, because some STC Chicago members work there. That gave me some hope as well as a starting place. I figured, if nothing else, I would have some practice talking to recruiters. I was very bad at it in college, so I could use all the practice I could get. (And here I apologize for having no photos in this post. I was too stressed from being perky and employable and forcing myself to make eye contact with the recruiters, so I totally forgot to take pictures.)

In a later post, I’ll discuss how I used this fair to experiment with my approach and how the recruiters reacted to how I introduced my field.

I forced myself to approach all of the companies. Many of them gave me the ol’ “Sorry but we’re only looking for…” line. Even now I’m not sure if it was comical or just sad. I think it would have been sad if I didn’t hear this from another company: “Actually, we have a tech writing position open! I’m surprised somebody actually asked about it.”

My jaw didn’t hit the floor, but I couldn’t contain my shock. To be fair, the recruiter seemed almost as shocked as I was. As a result, I actually came away from the job fair with one solid lead.

I also managed to find several less concrete leads. They mostly amounted to, “Well, we have a tech writing department, but we’re not hiring right now.” Still better than being told my degree–for which I suffered through calculus–was useless. I have some companies to watch and some recruiters whom I can stalk. (Which is evidently totally acceptable if my job hunt books are to be believed.)

More importantly, I came away from the Chicago Tech Job Fair with increased confidence and practice talking to recruiters. Also a rubber ball that flashes blue and red when you bounce it.

Networking for the Socially Challenged, Part 2: Shy

Here is Part 2 of my two-part series, “Networking for the Socially Challenged.” This segment will feature tips for the shy on how to deal with networking situations (as well as other types of social interaction).  If you are new to the series, I suggest reading my previous posts on introversion and shyness; although frequently confused with each other, they are not the same thing! Also, I suggest reading Part 1: Introverted if you haven’t already.

As always, I encourage all three of my readers to join the conversation via comments.

Now, without further ado,

Networking for the Shy

My shyness (or, if you prefer, social anxiety) has been an obstacle in my life for as long as I can remember, but it reached its worst ever right after high school, and it took me years to get where I am now. For example, I used to be so scared to eat alone in my college cafeteria that I would skip multiple meals in a row if I couldn’t find somebody to join me. Furthermore, in my university, it wasn’t altogether unusual for somebody to stay cloistered in their dorm room, only emerging for classes and meals. This situation only reinforced my shy behavior–I could justify it because “everyone else was doing it.”

This may be skirting the edge of “too much personal information,” but I want to show how crippling my social anxiety was. I’ve evolved to the point where I am able to go to a networking event or meetup with total strangers and only panic a little bit deep down inside. It was a very difficult for me to get to this point, and I hope that the tips I provide here will help others approach their shyness and eventually conquer it, as well.

Instead of approaching this post as a list of tips like I did in Part 1, I will be addressing some of what my worst obstacles have been in networking situations.

I’m not sure how to get started!

First of all, keep in mind the tips in Part 1. They’re mostly from an introvert’s perspective, but they also apply to the shy among us (especially the parts about starting conversations and asking questions to let the speaker carry the conversation). Also, many of the socially anxious are also introverted, as is the case with myself.

Start small. Don’t try to go to a 50-person banquet or a packed disco–even if you make it through the door, you will either flee out the door immediately or huddle miserably in a corner the whole time (I am speaking from experience, here). If that happens, you will only end up feeling worse about yourself, which will only make your anxiety worse. Remember, most shyness is based in hyper self-consciousness or self-judgment–don’t give yourself any more ammo to use against yourself.

So do little things first. If necessary, go all the way back to one-on-one interactions. Go to the post office and chat with the people in line. Hand in your rent in person instead of mailing it. Order a pizza over the phone instead of online. Basically, do all of the stuff in person that you otherwise avoid by using the Internet or other means. This will go a long way toward building up your confidence.

Once you’ve established single-person interactions within your comfort zone, try for a larger group. Perhaps a poetry reading at a coffee shop? Maybe a book club? Maybe you can volunteer for a cause you feel strongly about. If you are still in school, join a club. All of these suggestions have two things in common: 1) they will all be relatively small groups; and 2) they are groups bound by a common interest. If you find a group with a common interest, you not only know you have something to talk about, but you will already be (possibly unconsciously) within your comfort zone. It’s always easier to talk confidently about a topic you know and/or feel passionate about.

From here, just keep joining progressively larger groups until you feel you’re able to handle giant international conferences. The key here is don’t give up!

But they’re all judging me!

They’re actually not, and you know this on an intellectual level. I realize it’s tough convincing your fluttery stomach and heart palpitations otherwise. Let me see if I can help.

First of all, you’re not going to say or do the wrong thing. Once you’ve gotten that to sink in, half the battle is won. If you’re asking them questions and letting them do all the talking, you can’t possibly say the wrong thing. If you let people talk about themselves or their interests, they will remember you as a conscientious, attentive conversational partner. In short, they’re too busy lauding themselves to judge you.

Now here’s an exercise for you: Think of the last social gathering you attended. How many names do you remember? How many faces? How many words do you remember out of how many conversations? Chances are you remember very few details from that event, least of all specific details about the people and their behavior. Well, it’s the same for everyone. Most people won’t remember you once you’re out of their immediate vicinity. It’s not because you’re uninteresting; it’s just because that’s how people are. They can’t truly be judging you if they won’t even remember you!

On the other side of this coin, if you’re at a networking event because you need something (like a job), you WANT them to remember you! So, in the unlikely event that they were judging you, it is actually a GOOD thing! I know it sounds extremely after school special, but just be yourself and act like an adult and you’ll be fine.

But I don’t want to impose on anyone!

You’re not imposing on anyone by just talking to them! They’re there to socialize. If you can’t get over the feeling that you’re somehow inconveniencing them, try this: compliment them (but be sincere!). Say you like their hat or hair or shirt. Whatever, as long as you mean it. This will already give them a positive impression of you, and inconvenience will be the last thing on their mind. Furthermore, they might compliment you on your shoes or something, which will make you feel good about yourself!

How do I deal with the anxiety before and during the event?

This is a big one. If you’re on your way to an event and the anxiety builds up, you might not make it through the door. This could be very discouraging and make you feel worse about yourself. Alternately, you might make it through the door before the anxiety hits, but find yourself on the verge of a panic attack. This is one of the toughest situations I’ve found myself in. Here are some things I’ve done to help avoid the pre- and during-socialization freak outs.

  • Wear comfortable clothing! Being physically comfortable will go a long way toward being psychologically comfortable. Of course, you need to wear something appropriate for the event, but that doesn’t mean you have to eschew comfort options. Instead of wearing super high heels, just wear some reasonable professional flats. Try a lighter/heavier fabric if you know you’re typically too hot or cold. Furthermore, clothing is armor. If you know you look good and feel good, you’ll feel better about socializing.
  • Find a conversational “comfort zone.” Pick a topic or story you know you’re comfortable with and stick with it if you can without derailing ongoing conversations. This is why it’s important to start the conversation–you can steer it to topics you’re comfortable with. You can even mentally prepare some scripts to stick with in case you become tongue tied. However, if you are interested and informed about the topic, you probably won’t have problems talking about it.
  • Take a friend. A friend can help you get through the door if you hesitate. Your friend can also make introductions and help you get started in conversations. Your friend is essentially an extension of your comfort zone.  But DO NOT let your friend do all the work for you. You will not make any progress if you let this happen. You have to take control of your anxiety–your friend cannot do this for you. Make sure this friend knows about your anxiety issues, and let them know ahead of time how best to react to situations that may come up (such as impending panic attacks).
  • Get away from the crowd if you start to panic. The sweating, shortness of breath, shaking limbs, increased pulse, impending tears–the all-too-familiar symptoms of GET THE HECK OUT RIGHT NOW. It’s hard to fight. The best thing you can do is excuse yourself and get away from people. If you have a friend with you, tell them where you’re going (they should know ahead of time that you need to be alone at this point). Go get some air or get a drink. Once you’re alone, concentrate on your breathing or perform some muscle relaxation. Once you’re calmed down again, go back inside. Also, instruct your friend to call you after a pre-determined duration to make sure you haven’t fled the scene.
  • Have somebody “on call” who can help you through the panic. Sometimes you just need to know you have somebody to talk to. Have somebody available whom you can call to talk through your anxiety. Ideally, this person will be aware of your shyness and will provide the encouragement you need to get back to your socialization. I’ve always had my mom on call because she’s dealt with her own shyness and knows how to react.
  • Don’t give up! Giving up and leaving the event before you intended (or worse, not getting there at all), is the worst possible thing you can do. Why? Because it feels good. When you avoid or leave a situation that makes you anxious or uncomfortable, you feel a very pleasurable rush of relief. The relief is FAR preferable to the panic and discomfort, so you’ve essentially rewarded yourself for giving up. Do not positively reinforce this bad behavior! Instead, think how good you’ll feel when you’ve stuck it out! You be able to say you accomplished something despite the discomfort, rather than giving in to feel relief. This will be much more effective in the long run, and you’ll ultimately feel way better about yourself because you didn’t give up.

And then what?

Then just practice, practice, practice. The more you manage to get through these sorts of events, the easier it will get. You’ll feel less anxiety and discomfort, the heart palpitations will become less frequent, and before you know it, you’ll be more or less comfortable networking.

Do I still think about turning around at the door? Of course, but it’s momentary and I know that I’ll feel much better about myself in the long run if I go in. I’ve even started enjoying myself and sticking around willingly!

Focus on the successes. Sure, you might run from a room on the verge of tears and a panic attack. But don’t dwell on it. Instead, think about all the times when you managed to make somebody laugh or when somebody complimented your hat. Nobody is perfect, and you don’t have to be, either! Stop beating yourself up and go have some fun!

Networking for the Socially Challenged, Part 1: Introverted

As promised, here is Part 1 of my two-part series, “Networking for the Socially Challenged.” This segment will feature tips for how to deal with networking situations (as well as other types of social interaction) as an introvert.  If you are new to the series, I suggest reading my previous posts on introversion and shyness; although frequently confused with each other, they are not the same thing! Also, you can find Part 2: Shy here.

As always, I encourage all three of my readers to join the conversation via comments.

Now, without further ado,

Networking for the Introverted

If you are an introvert, networking can often be difficult because you have trouble drumming up enthusiasm about the activity. To begin with, you don’t even want to meet people in person–you’d much rather chat online or even simply e-mail them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t cut it. Furthermore, once you get into a networking situation (a meetup or conference, for example), you are often uninterested in socializing. These tips are meant to help kindle your interest in networking, or at least help you convince others you’re interested.

List your networking benefits and goals

It’s much easier to stay motivated to do something if you remember the benefits, so take some time and write down the reasons for networking and your end-goals for doing so. Do you need a job? Do you need a hire? Perhaps you just want to build your network now so you can draw on it later.  If you know of a networking event but are thinking about blowing it off, refer to your list before deciding.

Also keep your list in mind while you’re at that event you didn’t blow off, and try to focus your networking to meet those goals. For example, if you need to hire somebody, disseminate that fact as much as possible. With specific goals, you are less likely to get bored and distracted.

Right now, I’m mainly networking because I need a job–this alone is a huge motivator. But I also want to get my name out there as somebody outgoing (despite being an introvert) and willing to help out–because that’s who I am behind all the introverted shyness. Finally, I want to continue maintaining my network after I’m employed so that it is available when I have some other need to fulfill. Keeping this all in mind helps me get my butt to networking events when I’d much rather be reading by the fire. Yes, even in the summer.

Have a good conversation starter and use it

If you are able to find an in-progress conversation and seamlessly join it, great! However, if you have trouble doing that, think of an interesting conversation starter you can use to get your own going. Then look around the room–there is probably another introvert there trying to find a conversation. Go talk to them! Use your conversation starter to initiate the conversation and proceed from there. Chances are, more people will join in your conversation, and things will evolve on their own from there. The hard part is getting started.

When I was at the Society for Technical Communication (STC)  2012 Summit, I had two related conversation starters. The first was my conference badge. It was printed when I still lived in Albuquerque; I crossed that out and hand-wrote “Chicago” beneath it. Most people would check where I was from, and many asked why I had Chicago written there. Instant conversation.

My other conversation starter was specifically for use at the Summit’s Hospitality Table, which was manned by members of the Chicago STC chapter. Here I just walked up to somebody who didn’t look busy and basically said, “Hi, I’m new!” This led to an explanation of why I was in Chicago, and the conversation evolved from there. It was very easy to converse with a topic already in mind.

Pretend to be interested if you really aren’t

Ideally, you’ll find yourself discussing topics you enjoy. But that obviously won’t always be the case, and an introvert gets sick of conversations pretty quickly if its something they don’t care about. Do not let your disinterest show! You will leave the best impression if you continue to look interested in the conversation and the people having it. There are several ways to accomplish this:

  • Smile and nod – It’s cliche, but it is the easiest way to look interested. Also lean toward the speaker a tiny bit. Insert “Yeah?” and other verbal indicators of interest at the appropriate times.
  • Try to shift the topic to something more interesting – Being introverted, you may find this difficult without being too abrupt and irrelevant, but it will make the conversation much more appealing.
  • Ask questions – Most people are all too eager to carry a conversation about things that interest them (especially themselves), so encourage them to do so by asking relevant questions. They will probably remember you as attentive and interesting.
  • Keep your mind on the conversation – This is vital–do not let your mind wander! Mine does all the time, and I have to rein it back in. If you don’t pay attention, you may be unable to respond appropriately to a question. Or worse, you’ll respond inappropriately: “And then my dog died!” “Haha, that’s great!” Do not let this happen to you!

I happen to be a lucky introvert who finds most topics interesting, and I prefer when others carry the conversation. Regardless, I have had to resort to these techniques on occasion, and the person just keeps on talking, so I guess they worked.

Recognize when you need a break and take it

If you’re starting to feel drained, excuse yourself. Go grab a drink or move elsewhere (outside, if possible, or at least a vacant room) for a few minutes. Do what it takes to be alone and ease the over-stimulation in your brain meats. If you don’t take a rest, you may become exhausted too soon and have to leave before you’ve made progress toward your goals. Alternately, it may become more difficult to keep your mind from wandering from conversations, which could lead to a catastrophic faux pas–like laughing at somebody’s dead dog.

My reaction to over-stimulation is to literally shut down. I will fall asleep no matter where I am, how interesting the conversation is, how many people are there, or how loud it is.  This is obviously incredibly rude, so if I feel the urge coming on, I have to get up and move around until I’m revived.

Reward yourself

This is the easiest advice for an introvert to follow, but don’t understate its importance. If you managed to get through a harrowing network event, reward yourself! You need to follow that experience with positive reinforcement so you are even more motivated the next time you have to go out and network. So buy yourself that book you’ve been meaning to read, go take a candlelit bubble bath, or do whatever it is your introverted heart desires. You’ve earned it.

I hope this advice helps make networking more tolerable for you. I realize there are eleventy-billion posts on the same topic, but everyone is different; what might work for one introvert might not work for the rest. I hope something in here works for you.

Did these tips help you?  Do you have any to add? Please leave a comment (or contact me privately, if you prefer) and let me know!

What is introversion?

The last couple of weeks have taught me quite a bit about successful networking, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned. To that end, I had planned a 2-part series on networking for people who are shy/introverted.  However, during my research, I realized that–despite the apparent shared stigma toward them–shyness and introversion are actually very different things, and people may want to know the difference. So I will set up the series with a couple of posts describing these concepts.

In short, introversion indicates a lack of interest in most socialization, while shyness (also called social anxiety by the psych types) is characterized by a fear of social interaction. I have both.

Introversion after the cut.

Continue reading

Networking is a four-letter word…

…and those letters are H-A-R-D. I am a very shy introvert, and after yesterday’s (May 22) back-to-back networking events, all I could do was come back and collapse. I was going to blog about it all right away, but I had to spend some time mentally “unpacking” the day’s events.

What were these two events?

The first was the Society for Technical Communication’s (STC) 2012 International Summit. The other was a meetup of local content strategists.

STC Summit 2012 Logo

The STC is one of the largest (if not the largest) professional societies for the field of technical communication. The organization holds a yearly conference that draws technical communicators from all over the US–and internationally, as well. I went to the ’08 Summit in Philadelphia. I hadn’t been to one since then, primarily because it always landed during finals week or “dead week” (the week prior to finals, during which most final projects and papers are due). I did not originally intend to attend this year’s event because I felt the expenses of registration plus the plane ticket wouldn’t have been worth the return on investment (ROI).

Then I moved to Chicago. Suddenly, the price of a plane ticket was no longer an issue. And the ROI would be MUCH higher because I would be meeting with local technical communicators, thereby greatly increasing the value of my network. Attending the Summit was no longer a choice; it was a necessity. I did decide against going for the whole three days, choosing instead to purchase a one-day ticket.

I remember going to the 2008 Summit and being overwhelmed by the information I was getting from the sessions. I spent those three days ultimately learning how much I didn’t know about my own field. My head was so full of new tech comm knowledge that I really didn’t have the energy or inclination to network. Plus, at the time, I had no inkling of the importance of a good network. And even less an idea of how difficult it was to develop one. As overwhelmed as I was after three days of the ’08 Summit, I was far more overwhelmed during my single day of networking at this year’s Summit.

For 2012, my main goal was networking. I did attend two sessions, but they were incidental. However, they both directly contributed to my career goals. The first was about developing and maintaining one’s professional network (“Building Your Professional Network—Beyond the Social Media Maze”), and the other was about maintaining one’s portfolio (“Portfolios for Tech Comm Professionals.” The former was so valuable to me that I plan on writing a blog post or article about it if I can get permission from the presenter, Jenna Moore. I took copious notes, and I’d enjoy sharing what I learned.

The rest of my too-short day up in Rosemont (where the conference was held) was mostly spent at the event’s Hospitality Desk, which was manned by members of Chicago’s STC chapter. I managed to suppress my shyness for the day and chat, quite comfortably, with 8 or 10 locals. They were all super friendly and got me even more excited about continuing my career in Chicago. I really want to become involved with the chapter, and these folks were so welcoming, outgoing, and enthusiastic that I think it will be easy to motivate myself to contribute. For instance, now that I’ve decided I like blogging, I’ve already reached out to the person in charge of STC Chicago’s blog. Because I feel like I have something to contribute, I feel much more comfortable among their ranks.

On one hand, I’m glad I only went for one day. I felt so emotionally exhausted after that I don’t think I could have handled two more days. On the other hand, I wish I’d had more time to network and possibly attend more of the sessions. I spent the whole day feeling like I was behind the rest of the class: everyone already knew their way around the conference venue and had already established connections with each other. I felt like I was the new kid  in town a month into the school year. Everyone already had their playmates figured out, and I had to introduce myself or play alone on the swings.

Fortunately, I was dealing with professionals, not school children, so it was much easier to get into the flow of things. In fact, once I got in the groove of this whole networking thing, I found it got easier and easier as the day wore on. Which is good, because I still had a second networking event to attend, and it was even further from my comfort zone.

Content Strategists' Meetup

Chris Hester was the first STC Chicago member I “met”–via LinkedIn (we spoke for about 30 seconds at the Summit). She suggested I attend a meetup of local content strategists, which took place downtown. Unfortunately, this meant I had to leave the Summit a little early, but I think it was worth it. At the event, I found myself approaching total strangers and striking up conversations–unusual for a wallflower like me, to say the least.

I learned a lot about content strategy, which I can see myself getting involved with down the road once I have some more content creation experience under my belt. The presentation, “Connecting the Dots between Business, Brand, and Benefits with Content Strategy,” reinvigorated my enthusiasm for content creation. Then again, anyone could be inspired to creativity in that atmosphere.

The event was hosted by Manifest Digital–a company specializing in content creation, user experience, and content strategy–at its downtown location (see photo). The walls are painted with chalkboard and whiteboard paint, so employees can scribble and take notes any time creativity strikes. Since starting this blog, I’ve taken to hauling a notebook everywhere with me to jot down post ideas and outlines, so it’s easy for me to see the utility of writing down an idea as soon as it occurs. Those walls stood out to me as an indication of a place that fosters creativity and talent. The event as a whole indicated that Manifest Digital was interested investing in its community. It’s definitely the sort of place I hope I end up working.

Manifest Digital's Office Building

The riverfront office building of Manifest Digital, just across the river from Marina City. Everything about this location inspires creativity.

I was tired, but I did find the time to chat with the presenter, Rahel Bailie, about something she said that was so meaningful to me I wrote it down in my phone. She said, “All content is marketing content.” She specifically included technical communication and user-generated content. It was so poignant because my personal philosophy is, “Everything’s an argument.” It’s a very similar idea. Both statements imply that persuasion a necessary element in everything produced, even if the intention to persuade isn’t conscious. It’s pretty exciting to see my philosophy line up so closely with that of a successful professional.

I also spent some time speaking with one of the event’s organizers. We had a nice conversation about the kinds of work Manifest Digital produces and, of course, about the awesome office. About then, the day started to catch up with me, so I thanked her for opening up her workplace for the gathering and grabbed the train back home.

Despite the anxiety and exhaustion, the day was immensely successful. It was a success because I managed to paper the Summit bulletin boards with resumes, give out (and collect) impressive quantities of business cards, and  make some great local contacts in the field. But I feel my biggest accomplishment during these two events was overcoming my shyness enough to not only approach strangers and speak with them, but to feel comfortable doing so. I’m taking that as a sign that I really am ready for my career in the Second City.