A few weeks ago, I decided to sign up for my first in person networking event ever.
It started very well. I was lucky to find one within a fifteen minute drive of where I live, hosted in one of my favourite hotels. Except that the second after I pressed the pay button, panic started to set in. How on earth was I going to pluck up the courage to attend the said event?
I did what I often do when I have no clue how to do something. I started to do some reading. Luckily, I had a copy of This Shit Works by Julie Brown in my office, so I started off by reading her book. I had the pleasure of being interviewed on Julie’s podcast last August and I love her no nonsense attitude to networking. I wasn’t disappointed.
Next, I googled top tips for autistic entrepreneurs in the hope of finding some interesting tips to help me nail that meeting. Sadly, what I found was disappointing. I know that we only represent 1% of the population (at least the people who have an official diagnosis) but there is actually a much higher ratio of autistic people in the business world, especially entrepreneurs. This is not a coincidence, autistic people make brilliant entrepreneurs. However, we all know that our social skills can be lacking, at least in certain settings, so I feel sharing my top tips for my fellow autistic entrepreneurs would be useful. And perhaps this could also help neuro-typical entrepreneurs too.
Here we go.
Tip 1: Own your brilliance
I am ready to bet that your business is unique and does not resemble other people’s businesses, even if you technically do the same thing as someone else. You tend to look at things differently. You don’t accept something just because it’s what people do. I also know that you will have good in depth into your business area because it is likely to be your special interest. Instead of shying away from being different, embrace your own brilliance.
Personally, I stand out in my industry because most people who teach intuition rabbit on about meditation the moment they open their mouths. This drives me crazy because to me, as the neuro-diverse nerd that I am, I know that meditation is not the most effective way to access your intuition. And I know that for a lot of people, it actually hinders it. My tag line is that you can access your intuition without meditating for hours, wearing crystals and giving up on coffee or wine. I am sure you stand for something fresh and innovative in your industry. Own it.
Tip 2: You are actually a lot more social than you think you are
You just do social differently. You probably prefer to have one to one conversations. You are also likely not to like small talk. This is not an issue in networking events. Work the room your way. Think about a question you could ask people you meet that relates to your special interest or the things that make you interesting. And ask the first person you meet that question.
I did just that in that networking event. I had decided that one of the topics I would explore with the people coming to the event was travel. After all, I am an immigrant and I have travelled most continents for my job. The thing people most want to know after they hear my name, is where I come from. And of course, I like to please, so I tell them I come from France. It is then quite easy to continue the conversation onto languages, traveling and Paris. Wait until I give you my top tip number 3, though. And you will find this even better.
Tip 3: Your job is not to talk but to listen
If you are like me, having a conversation with a complete stranger can set you into panic. But I am going to change the way you look at networking event. You are not here to have conversations with complete strangers. You are here to LISTEN to them. And ask questions. And I know, my fellow autistic entrepreneur, that you are good at both.
Remember how in school, you kept on asking questions? And more often than enough, teachers found you annoying because of your questions. The questions you ask are now your networking superpower. Pretend you are on a mission to find out as much as possible about the people in the networking room and go ask them questions. You could even have a set of preset questions written in a notebook and use them to start conversations.
If someone asks you a question and takes you down the dangerous road of conversation, remind yourself that you only need to tell them a little bit about what they asked. Keep it simple. Keep it sweet. Perhaps practice with a friend before you go to the networking event.
Tip 4: Be upfront about being autistic
I went to the networking event wearing a sunflower badge and it made me feel a lot safer. It can actually be an ice breaker and nowadays, people are much more inclusive than they used to be. This could allow you to ask for a quiet space to speak one to one with a person. Or maybe ask for the lights to be dimmed if they create sensory issues. The more I share about being autistic, the more I find out how friendly people are with me and love to actually go the extra mile to help me.
It will also make it less awkward if you don’t get a joke or if you find it hard to keep eye contact. Your audience will already have an idea about what kind of things might be an issue for you. However, the best policy is to be completely upfront.
Go forth and be your wonderfully autistic self. You have so much to bring to the business world. And if you want some extra encouragement, listen to Lisa Johnson’s podcast episode here.