July 25, 2010

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Reflections from a tweetup

Although I like spending most evenings at home, I can occasionally be tempted out for a tweetup (at most once a week, to give myself time to recharge and follow up). Thursday night, I joined Judy Gombita, Neal Schaffer, and other folks at Crafted (135 Ossington) for yummy chocolate and conversation.

Isaac Ezer once told me that he goes to events to practice small talk. Even if none of the conversations bear fruit, he learns something from the practice. I like the way he thinks. It’s like the way I encourage beginners to think about social media. Focus on the immediate personal benefit, and let the social benefits be icing on the cake. You can’t make people comment on your blog, and you can’t force people to connect well with you in a five-minute conversation, but you can learn a lot in the process of reaching out. (More about asymmetric connection: Exercising my network)

The funny thing is that letting go of expectations makes it easier to connect. And that conversations turn out to be remarkably fascinating anyway. More about this if those conversations grow.

Networking tips

It turns out that talking to other people not only helps you learn what they know, but what you know as well. example, here are a few things that I apparently do well:

  • Having a card with a photo on it: Internet opinions differ on whether or not you should put a photo on your business card, but people I’ve met in real life have almost always expressed appreciation for little things to help them jog their memory.
  • Bringing my own nametag to an event, and pinning it on the right side: Yes, there is a correct side for nametags. See my braindump of conference networking tips for explanations and more advice.
  • Giving people an excuse to start a conversation: Sometimes it’s what I’m wearing – a hat, or ethnic touches in my outfit (in this case, a malong from the Philippines, worn as a skirt). Sometimes it’s my nametag, or the keywords on it. Whatever gets us past weather-talk.
  • Asking interesting questions: Instead of asking people what they do, ask them what they’re passionate about, or some other non-traditional question. It helps people break out of autopilot and gives them a chance to talk about something that excites them. If someone asks you what you do, turn the question into something you’re excited about, too.
  • Sharing: Many people struggle with finding the time to write or the courage to share online. Something about my perspective helps me shortcircuit that, becoming comfortable with thinking out loud. Must figure out what that is and how to share it.

Things to try at your next get-together.

I suspect I’m also getting the hang of remembering names, at least within a limited context and timespan. This is good. When you stop telling yourself that you’re bad at names and you start just having fun remembering them, you have fun remembering them.

Tweetups are particularly interesting because there’s an inherent promise of a low-effort way to follow up with and learn more about people you meet. It’s not like a networking event at which you might be lucky to make a connection deep enough to sustain e-mail exchanges or coffee get-togethers. Because Twitter doesn’t require reciprocity to follow someone’s updates, you can keep up with interesting people and let the connection develop slowly. It also provides an easy way to connect with people you might not have had a chance to talk to during the actual event.

About introductions

Judy Gombita was probably so excited about The Shy Connector presentation. She kept introducing me as the famous Sacha Chua. This made me think about how I like being introduced. =)

“Famous” creates too much distance for me. First, it’s untrue–or at least as I pointed out, I can’t be famous if people haven’t heard of me. The corollary is that if I were actually famous, I wouldn’t need to be introduced. Although there’s Internet-famous, when people know your name or your thing but may not necessarily know what you look like.

The main reason I don’t like “being famous”, though, is because it draws lines: people who are in the know, and people who don’t. You know the weird feeling you get when people make you guess their name because you’re already supposed to know them? (One of my pet peeves.) Right. If someone’s supposed to be famous and you don’t know them, it’s hard to avoid feeling a little bit excluded, a little bit out of it. Like an in-joke that everyone else gets but you.

I have the same odd feeling about how my team members still occasionally introduce me as “one of the most followed bloggers at IBM”, even though (a) there have been many more interesting and popular bloggers since then, (b) the stats are fuzzy, and (c) it’s not about an A-list anyway. Although I suppose people like introducing people based on fame for the same reason people are fascinated by close touches with celebrities – there’s reflected cachet. To which I reply that you don’t need to hang out with rockstars to be a rockstar. =)

Distance. You can inspire people from a distance, but I’d rather be someone people can identify with. Distance gives people an excuse to stop trying. (Yay Miguel Arguelles’ rant!)

My favourite kind of introduction doesn’t come at the beginning of a conversation. It comes in the middle of when you’re talking to someone, and they mention something they’re passionate about or that they want to accomplish, and you light up and go “Oh! I know who you should talk to!”, and you pull someone across the room and into the conversation with a brief introduction about why he or she is just the right person. I love making these contextual, motivated introduction, and I love receiving them too.

My second-favourite kind of introduction is where the introducer mentions a few common interests. The more uncommonly common, the better. Social network profiles help a lot with this, as I discovered when I memorized keywords from people’s profiles to help co-host a Greater IBM networking event.

When I’m helping start the conversation, I usually try to get my “What are you passionate about?” or “What’s your story?” questions in before (or shortly after) people go into the “What do you do?” routine. In addition to making the conversation more interesting, this also helps me do my favourite kind of self-introduction: a contextual self-introduction where I can talk about what we have in common or how I can help people.

I hate cold-start introductions almost as much as I hate having repetitive conversations about the weather. ;) Hence all these work-arounds to avoid them.

About the sharing instinct

Questions are awesome. Questions help me figure things out and get me explaining them. Then I get this “I really should blog that” urge, and we get posts like this – braindumps from snippets of conversation and questions partially answered.

The trick to finding more raw material for writing is to rewire your instinctive reactions so that you get that urge whenever something happens. Everything is raw material. There’s always something you can learn from, something you can share.

It’s worth writing down even if your thoughts are a bit sparse. Like this. This is me thinking out loud. (Hi!)

Time to write

Neal was surprised to hear that I write every day. It’s not hard. You just hook up your brain to the computer and think for a while. When you’re not focused on making perfect, elegant, insightful prose, you can get a lot more out of your brain.

I don’t have the time to write everything I want to. But I also don’t have the time to skip writing. (What, and have to re-explain myself and re-solve problems?)

Editing comes later. For me, I’m fine sharing practically everything, and leaving the rewriting to future blog posts that revisit my favourite topics.

In fact, I usually write more than once a day, but I’ve limited myself to publishing one post a day so that people can manage their reading better. It’s hard to resist the temptation to pack everything into one big post, though. Maybe I need to start setting word limits for myself as well.

Having a cat helps. Particularly a cat who wants breakfast by 7 AM at the latest. And who has a loud meow. And sharp teeth. And no snooze button. Why did I bother getting an iPod clock radio?

You can write 1500+ words in 1.5 hours. You don’t even need to type quickly. That’s 16 words per minute. The bottleneck is your brain, not your fingers. Being able to touch-type helps, because then you don’t have to think about typing, you just do.

The trick to finding the time to write is to build it into how you work, so that you don’t have to find the time to write. You write in the process of figuring something out or taking notes.