How to Use Storytelling to Create Trust and Build an Authentic Network for the Shy, Introverted, and Sleaze-Averse
As a shy child I dreaded any activity that required an introductory game. Birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and youth group mixers were attended with the resignation that the first half hour would involve enduring some sadistic adult’s idea of fun.
I would do my best to disappear against the wall or attempt to excuse myself to the bathroom. Eventually, I would be shamed into compliance, made to sit cross-legged with all the others as I rubbed my damp palms on the knees of my jeans.
I’m not sure why I found making small talk so daunting at that age. Selling the idea of myself felt embarrassing, beneath me. It still does. I think even as children we can recognize the dishonesty inherent in these forced acts of friendship, and for me, that deceit bred anxiety.
I’ve since shed my shyness, growing into a confident woman with a firm, dry handshake. I’ve had twenty years in the hospitality industry to get comfortable with initiating first conversations. But I never grew out of my disdain for icebreakers. I comforted myself with the belief that their tyranny would end with the completion of my education, a notion promptly trampled by the discovery of their adult equivalent: networking.
Networking events tend to be terrible. Even thinking about them can elicit groans as we are confronted by the guilt of not squeezing enough of them into an already overstuffed schedule. While not mandatory, most fields consider them a necessary means of convincing other humans that you too are a human, and not merely another email address to be dismissed or relegated to spam. Ironically, the perceived way of doing this is to suffer through a series of robotic conversations. These are tolerated with the hopes of converting one of these strangers into an acquaintance whom you can bombard with reasons as to why they should help you over a free lunch.
This game of marketing oneself can still feel a bit gauche, even for the extroverted. It’s no wonder when our blueprint for networking success is still based on the immortalized images of Gordon Gecko and Patrick Bateman. Worse than the discomfort derived from this tendency toward inauthentic pushiness, is the realization that these efforts are actually ineffective. People don’t buy into what you’re selling because of a clever pitch, they buy into the idea of what something stands for.
As the representation of their businesses, entrepreneurs and freelancers are given the unenviable task of promoting themselves in a way that conveys their experience and professionalism while refraining from coming off as boastful or insincere. These can be rough waters to tread, and so many choose to play it safe, relegating themselves to awkward pleasantries and polite gossip.
This behavior is contradictory to the rebelliousness, determination, and vision that first inspired them to become entrepreneurs, the qualities that ultimately, make them attractive to work with. The problem lies in insisting on following an archaic map to navigate the modern business landscape. In order for networking to yield results, it needs to be reframed to reflect our demand for authenticity. We need to stop “networking” and start fostering trust.
Cultivating trust takes time, but the process can be expedited through the use of storytelling. The act of hearing stories naturally releases both oxytocin and dopamine into the bloodstream of the listener. Oxytocin stimulates feelings of generosity and bonds the listener to the storyteller. Dopamine increases one’s memory and motivation, crucial for a situation in which your major goal is to motivate others to find you memorable. The benefits garnered from the release of dopamine are magnified at work events because attendees often arrive irritated, distracted, and preemptively critical of the pitches they anticipate having to thwart. This mindset is proven to impair memory, even before that third trip to to the bar for another ice-breaking tonic.
As our schedules are unlikely to undergo the drastic restructuring necessary to accommodate networking events before our hectic workdays, storytelling provides a way to combat that negative default without eliminating our excuse to indulge in a mid-week happy hour. There are certainly less business-appropriate ways to get noticed. But what if that graphic design degree hasn’t prepared you for the undertaking that is casually keeping a room of prospective clients absorbed in your every word? How does one figure out what story to tell?
Find Your Story
The good news is that all stories create dopamine, setting the bar comically low. Not knowing how your story will end innately makes it suspenseful for the listener. You even have your catalyst.
Every business begins with an idea. Think back to the impetus behind your decision to do what you do. Was there a problem you were trying to solve? A last straw that couldn’t be ignored? Maybe you saw someone overlooking an opportunity you felt to be obvious and thought, ‘I could do better.’
Paint a scene with your words. Use your senses. Allow your audience to imagine along. Describing how you helped a man with crippling anxiety organize his day to avoid triggers and introduce modes of release is much more specific and tangible than telling people you are a life coach. Be emotive. Feeling passion for your work is a luxury. Use that enthusiasm and people will respond.
If you don’t have it together, no amount of lying is going to fool intelligent, successful people into believing you do. In which case, there’s always politics. However, too often we are afraid that vulnerability will be equated with incompetence when the opposite is true. If your suffering, failure, and disillusionment don’t illustrate your values and capacity for growth, at least they’ll make for an interesting story.
Exaggerating or glossing over untidy details may make people think you’re proficient, but it won’t necessarily embolden them to work with you. Small talk is inoffensive. It wagers nothing and so the rewards it reaps are minuscule. Anything that fails to deliver results is a waste of time.
People want your messy, inconvenient truths. They create empathy and unite you under the universality of the human condition. We’re all looking for purpose and connection and that road is rarely a straight line. Show people you’re willing to learn and change course when something isn’t working. The best stories are rooted in people’s humanity. Don’t be afraid to take a risk.
Use Your Body
Micro-expressions are not only subliminally understood, but unconsciously replicated. Recounting a story that reawakens positive emotions within yourself will arouse those same feelings in others.
We are naturally animated when we recollect the things that have happened to us. Adopting hand gestures not only conveys that legitimacy, but helps to draw the listener in. It has value from an evolutionary standpoint as well. We are instinctually programmed to distrust people whose hands are hidden. The act of placing one’s hands in their pockets might be nothing more than acting on the impulsive to dry one’s palms, but it generates collective tension.
Be Strategic With Whom You Pursue
Having an opinion precludes you from being all things to everyone. This is not a bad situation to be in. Your time is precious. Don’t waste it on someone whose values don’t align with your own. The clients and collaborators who alert your intuition in the beginning, tend to reinforce having warranted your trepidation by the end. I would have a hard time working with someone who didn’t believe in equal pay, thought I should behave deferentially because of my gender, or thought Puerto Rico was a country. Choosing to pursue only those whom I respect has not only allowed me to work with the right people, but work with the right people for me.
Networking is a vital part of promoting our businesses and no job should require its employees to do anything that drives them to feel apologetic for pursuing a living. The key to removing its negative stigma is to add value for the people we meet. Using stories to build trust allows people to be won over without sacrificing authenticity or passion, and makes the work of building business relationships less of a chore. Building trust in your brand is a hustle, but creating genuine connections can transform a dreaded task into growth that’s anything but embarrassing.
Artwork by Costas Picadas