Last week, I was at the awards luncheon for the 2016 Women of Influence Awards, hosted by an organization called Connected Women of Influence. Nice name, right, for an organization that brings together women leaders for collaboration and support. I was honored to be there, to be a final nominee for two awards… But I was also a little uncomfortable.
Because despite the fact that the women attending were VERY welcoming, and the organization is diverse, well run, and well connected, it’s still a networking organization. And networking events, even those hosted by obviously special networking groups, kind of give me the willies.
I imagine it’s a little like speed dating, though I’ve never done that. It’s definitely like being the new kid in class. We want to be liked, we hope to like others, but we want it to feel real. Superficial niceties and inauthentic exuberance leave us depleted. Why? Because what we’re really looking for is meaningful connection. We’re looking for that next partner or client or love or true friend… And we have just a few sentences with each person to look for a spark that might grow into flame.
At the luncheon, women at my table shared what they do when casually asked by our tablemates. And it was kind of the usual: marketing consultant; owner of a small business; magazine editor… Even me: inspirational speaker and coach.
And our interest in each other, though more than polite for sure, didn’t really spark anything. Again, even with me. I watched it happen. Someone asked me what I do, I gave the party line, and she said, “Oh, how nice.”
Oy. This is exactly why I don’t love networking events. “Superficial” and “inauthentic” seem unavoidably woven in.
But something definitely shifted, and it was one of those ah, of course moments for me:
A woman two plates over asked what I do and, this time, without really thinking about it, I shared a tiny bit of my story. I said something like, “Years ago I was paralyzed in a fall and now I speak about turning challenging circumstances into our greatest opportunities.”
Well, the woman I was speaking to lit up with curiosity and started asking questions, not just about my story but also about what I do. And the more of my story I told, the more she wanted to know about everything, the more opportunity I had to meaningfully share my work, and the more genuinely connected we both felt.
Ta da!! Meaningful connection.
And you know what else? An hour later, she suggested I speak at her church and gave me contact information for the Pastor.
That’s what’s supposed to happen at a networking event! The point is to connect – genuinely connect — with people who can benefit from what you do, whom you can serve. And it wouldn’t have happened if I’d left my story tucked inside.
This is absolutely no surprise. It’s always been my experience. And I’m not just talking about business. This connective power is true in life, too.
I remember shortly after I was paralyzed, I was invited to speak to a support group for people with spinal cord injuries at a local hospital. And I was asked to speak specifically about the power of telling our stories. The focus was meant to be our stories about becoming or being injured, but I made my point about our stories in general.
Well, a lot of people at the meeting were really skeptical about sharing their stories, even those that had nothing to do with their spinal cord injuries. There was one man, a big guy, injured less than five years, and obviously still pretty beaten down about it. He was shaking his head while I talked as if to say, “No way. You won’t catch me telling no stories!”
So I invited him to do a little exercise with me. I started asking him questions about his hometown. And in responding to those questions, he started telling us about the farm he lived on and the work of the farm, the pitching of hay, the smell of the grass (it became instantly clear just what he’d lost when he became paralyzed)… and within seconds, everyone in the room was drawn in. Even his wife, who presumably knew some of these stories. Everybody wanted to hear more about his life.
And he was beaming… Just a big ol’ grin on his face!
So, a man who started out pretty inaccessible, even a bit intimidating in both his size and his demeanor, was suddenly the center of our heart’s attention, genuinely drawing people toward him whose interest and care for him was only growing.
And there it was. In just a few seconds, a few sentences, it happened: Connection. Like it always does.
Stories just do that. They let us into each other. And whether we’re at a networking event, or sitting around with friends, or with our kids or our spouse, connection feels good. It lifts everybody up. And of course, in business, it’s crucial. (I’d argue it’s crucial in life, too, by the way.)
After connecting in this really delicious way with my tablemates at the luncheon, there was a keynote speaker. She was a leader in business with a long history of supporting other women to become leaders. And she was twice awarded commendations from the President (as in, of the United States of America) for her volunteer service. No slouch, for sure.
But I don’t remember a word she said. And I never felt drawn in. Connection just didn’t happen… at least not for me.
And I thought, what a shame! This is clearly an amazing woman. I want to know more… But maybe it’s more accurate to say I wanted to want to know more. In truth, I was really bored, and missed whatever great points she was certainly making.
It was the story-thing again.
In her case, it wasn’t a lack of personal story shared, but the ones she chose either didn’t seem relevant or failed to connect me to her passion and purpose. They were vague and incomplete. They felt sort of generic.
But there’s no way this woman was living a generic life! In truth, nobody does. But certainly not she who is obviously dedicated to her mission and living into that mission everyday.
I was going nuts the first ten minutes or so of her talk, sort of an occupational hazard of being a long time storyteller. The questions were flying through my mind — connections I wanted made, things I wanted to know, that I cared about, that would have helped me move closer to her, that would have drawn me in and made me genuinely curious about her and her work.
And I found myself cringing at the lost opportunity, her lost opportunity to move everyone in that room closer, not only to her but, to ourselves. Because that’s her mission. To help women step into their leadership and make a difference. She could have inspired us to do exactly that, to see ourselves in ways we never had before by letting us see her in a more meaningful way.
But that potential just kind of leaked away. The more she talked, the faster it went down the drain. And it made me so sad… For all of us.
So sad, in fact, that it’s kind of lit a flame under my butt.
Sharing our stories is important for all of us; I will stand by that until my dying day. But right now, I’m thinking especially about the women in business that I know.
I know a lot of women in business, a lot of women working their buns off to deliver good products and services. And a lot of those women are struggling to connect with customers, clients, and partners, the very people necessary to keep themselves in business.
When I imagine those women putting themselves out there – at networking events, on their websites, up on a stage, in conversation with potential clients and partners – and falling flat because they don’t know how to capture and relate their most relevant story… Ugh! I just can’t bear it. I really can’t.
So, I’m inspired:
Very temporarily, I am unretiring from speaker/story coaching. Just for the business gals in my world (which, by the way, includes you artists and healers who might not think of yourselves as business gals). For you, I’m cooking up something special to help you harness the power of your story. Because I want you to make more of those meaningful connections. I want you to do more of what you do!
I need about a week to get my ducks in a row, but I’ll be back soon with more details. There will be no more lost opportunities to connect for you! Not if I can help it. 🙂
Meantime, and for all of us, I wonder what would it take to more frequently share our stories? Do we need an invitation? Someone to ask us? Do we need to better trust that we have stories that matter?
Maybe we can start making a habit of asking each other. I suspect all we need is a small – and genuine – opportunity. I suspect if we start, it will grow itself.
Opportunities to connect are about the most precious thing we have. Maybe we can stop wasting them.