Last week, I attended the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s (CBCF) Annual Legislative Conference held in Washington, D.C. The Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1971 and is a caucus of African American members of Congress who raise the profile of black and other minority concerns. Each year, its nonprofit foundation, the CBCF, holds a legislative conference, which features multiple days of panel discussions, town halls and issue forums related to pressing social and political issues impacting African Americans. The conference attracts D.C. politicos as well as grassroots organizers and nonprofits from across the country hoping to meet their members of Congress and lobby their cause. But far from just a political conference, “CBC week,” as it is known around town, attracts artists, celebrities, businesses and members of the media who cover the shindig.
In other words, the CBCF Annual Legislative Conference brings together an interesting and high profile mix of people who can be found networking during the week’s dozens of receptions and after parties, which, to some, are the real highlights of the conference. If you live in D.C., you know that CBC week is the time to get off the couch and into the mix of people who are out, about and ready to network.
You don’t have to be particularly special to go the week’s receptions. While some attempt to create an air of exclusivity, most are free and only require that you find out when and where they take place and get yourself on an RSVP list. That’s were shamelessness comes into play. In the weeks leading up to the conference, lists of events along with pleas for access to them float around email boxes. This year, I entered the begging ring with absolutely no shame. While networking isn’t my favorite thing to do in the world, I knew that this was a great opportunity to get out there, get known and get contacts. What’s more, it would be a great time to get comfortable talking to people about who I am as a writer—something I haven’t really needed to do before. Thus, I viewed last week’s networking palooza as my own little freelance coming out party and hit the reception circuit with full force. I also walked away with some valuable networking lessons.
- Eye contact is the first introduction. When you’re in a room filled with strangers, it can be difficult to figure out how to begin talking to someone. I came to rely on the old eye contact trick. Making eye contact with someone was my cue to go up to him or her and introduce myself. It’s possible that the eye contact I experienced wasn’t really an invitation for conversation, just more of a happenstance of human eye behavior. But hey, that’s not my fault.
- If it looks as though someone is doing something important on their phone, they’re not. In the old networking days, when one had no one to talk to, one’s only choice was to stare into the ether. Now, one can simply look at a smartphone and pretend to be attending to some extremely important email. But there’s no email. It’s just a crutch. Someone looking at their phone is a sign that they need someone to talk to. Enter me.
- No one cares about networking after 8 p.m. Typical hours for the reception circuit are 6-9:30 p.m., and many people reception hop from one event to another. The thing is, by 8 o’clock, most people don’t care about “networking” anymore. They only care about hitting the open bar as many times as they can before it closes. So, I’ve learned that if one chooses to go to multiple receptions, it’s key to go to the important ones—where you really want to meet new people—before 8 p.m. After that, just relax, meet up with some friends and enjoy the free food…if there’s any left.
- Network with the conference speakers too. Many people who only attended the CBC week receptions but not the actual legislative conference missed out on a great opportunity to network with authors, activists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and a whole host of interesting people. As a writer, I found the conference sessions to be a great resource for story ideas, and talking to the speakers led to some of the most important networking I did. If I have any advice for writers attending any conference, it’s go the sessions.
As a writer, my natural inclination is to avoid networking at all costs. I’m much more comfortable sitting with my notebook in the back of the room. But networking is an important part of a freelance writer’s life. Plus, some of the most interesting stories are reserved for those who put themselves in the middle of the action.
How do you survive networking? Share your tips, I could use them!