Fresh back from a conference I went in knowing no one (except from the Internet). It was informative and full of nice people. (Read: Overstimulating and a crowd.) In Vegas. (Read: Overstimulating and crowded. But with glitter!)
I had to muster all the networking nerve I could. I’m still a networking newbie. Having spent a chunk of my business’s change on the trip, I needed to make it count. “What a way to make a livin’!”
At best, my spirit animal is the lovechild Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson never had: I’m a straight-shooter who serves her tunes with a wink. I also can rock a pair of cowboy boots like nobody’s business. When I talk business, I kick those boots right up on the boardroom table.
Unfortunately, my spirit animal seems to escape its cage every time I enter a roomful of strangers.
I used to tell myself networking is disingenuous, or as I say IRL, “gross.” It sometimes is, but that doesn’t keep me from committing any other necessary evils. I swim in public pools and touch the stairwell rails all the time.
So I had to ask myself: What would Dolly do (WWDD)? (Yes, you see what I did there.)
A Dolly aficionado — her autobiography is about my favorite nonfiction book — and sweaty-handed networking newbie, I felt prepared to answer this self-imposed hypothetical. I’m not saying it will be all “Islands in the Stream” from here on out, but it will be a heck of a lot easier.
1) Dolly asks questions and is interested in the world around her. She learns from everyone.
In an abandoned cabin in the woods near her childhood home, she came up with an interesting theory that connects religious belief, sex, and music into her own theoDollogy. As a teenager, she modeled her wardrobe after the town hooker. (No, I’m not exaggerating. Stop reading this blog post now and go read her book.)
This segues nicely into the best socializing advice my dad ever gave me. To paraphrase: Just make the person you’re talking to feel like they’re the most interesting one in the room. That means ask questions about their work, actually listen to the answers, and be observant.
It doesn’t mean a lot of false flattery and groveling.
2) Dolly doesn’t agree with everything you say, but she’s respectful and gracious.
When Dolly wanted to kick Porter Wagoner to the curb, she wrote him one of the greatest pop songs of all time: “I Will Always Love You.”
In panel discussions, it’s okay not to agree with what others opine. Even those more experienced or seemingly more confident. But, take it from someone who can come off as abrasive when she’s earnest, be respectful and gracious. Find a way to disagree without going head on. “In my limited experience with country music-writing, Ms. Parton. . .”
Chances are if you’re still nervous about networking, you’re not negotiating the rights to a multi-million dollar song. Don’t be afraid to share what you think.
If you’re someone like me, also work on being quiet. (Having a conversation with a stranger? Terrifying. Debating with or asking questions of said stranger in public forum? Somehow totally fine.)
3) Dolly does it up!
While we can’t all afford to look like my patron-saint, you better bet she doesn’t leave the house looking like she’s been up crying all night over some Jolene-ish character. She gets her mom to hunt through the scrap pile to sew her a fabulous coat of many colors.
At conferences, it can be tempting to take the day “off” from work as a chance to sport a T-shirt emblazoned with a sports team or a joke you think is funny.
Dolly would never!
No need to overdo it. But set polo and khakis as the low bar. Slacks are safe for men and women at just about every conference.
Note: Dressing decently doesn’t make you any less smart.
A Dolly Mantra: “Don’t let these false eyelashes lead you to believe I’m as shallow as I look ’cause I run true and deep.”
And remember, the higher the hair, the closer to God. Just kidding. Sort of.
4) Who has the best Dolly Parton jokes? Dolly Parton does, of course.
She’s not afraid to crack a joke at her own expense. After all, business is a money-making joke.
There are bound to be a few mis-steps. I know I make a few each conference I attend, usually in the Hilarious Jokes No One Gets Dept. This time: Cher references. (What can I say? I love a diva and some dang rhinestones.)
This department is in the same hallway as the Yes, There Really Are Dumb Questions Dept. and the Tripped and Fell Entering Session Late Dept.
A little humor can step in to save the day. One of my favorite Dollyisms: “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb — and I’m not blonde either.” Me neither.
5) Finally, you best bet Dolly does not fear introducing herself. Not enough to keep her from doing it, anyhoo.
If the world recognizes you by your first name, you have lucked out. No more reciting with zeal her elevator pitch, no more awkward shuffling through her purse for a business card, no more “Was that Holly?”
This is where Dolly and I part ways. She’s an arena goddess and I work in a home-office.
At the beginning of each day at a conference, I make a bargain with myself: You can’t head home until you’ve talked to x new people and gotten/handed out x business cards. This makes the day more of a game, gives me an actionable task (I love homework as much as Dolly loves glitz).
The best tip I heard was to sit next to someone I didn’t know during every session. This led to a couple new job leads and several great conversations.
If nothing else, Dolly is a shrewd business woman — the person who turned a middle-of-nowhere mountain town into Dollywood and Gatlinburg into basically the Vegas east of the Mississippi. She would not waste the money on attending a conference without trying her darnedest to make it work.
Writers and editors, maybe even more so than musicians, rely on connections to be able to do work and get paid.
In Dolly’s words: “You better get to knowin’, showin’ a little bit more concern about where you’re goin’.”
After all, personal branding is just some gross corporate code word, for, as Dolly says, being you on purpose.
You can buy Dolly Parton’s My Life and Other Unfinished Business for one penny here. Do it.