Invisible Dust

London | Saturday 20 April
Pollution level: Moderate

Hearing from our Fellows: Natalie Lee


A couple of years ago, the idea of standing in a room full of strangers by myself and being expected to get to know them, was my worst nightmare. At conferences, gallery exhibitions, opening events, I would bury my head in a brochure I wasn’t reading and  avoid all eye contact. For a long time I didn’t even entertain the notion of getting  involved. I was convincing myself it was because I didn’t like that sort of thing, that the idea of networking just wasn’t me. It’s for narcissists right?

More recently I’ve been improving the way I look at these opportunities to meet new people. I’ve been working on building confidence to take advantage of scenarios where I can share my research and practice with others. This started when I read a book called The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young. I’m not usually one for self-help books but I gave this a go because I was having a hard time accepting that I was where I was supposed to be, and it was making me want to quit. The book is about imposter syndrome. If you’re not familiar with the term, it is a pattern of thinking that doubts personal or professional success, maintaining that it is in some way fraudulent or undeserving. In the book, Young highlights the propensity for women and marginalised groups to be more susceptible to these patterns of thinking due to ingrained social/racial/gender positioning.

I started to recognise personal characteristics that were effecting my ability to speak up in a group, or to challenge an idea I disagreed with, or to feel comfortable in the presence of people I didn’t know. But crucially, I began to recognise the contributing external factors that I was also up against. As a woman, I fall from a higher place if I go in confident and fail. So I find myself apologising. As a working class person, my background and my accent can reveal others’ judgement. So I find myself staying silent.

I wasn’t alone not talking to anyone at these events because I wasn’t the networking type. It was because I was scared. Scared of being in a position where I had to speak about myself. Scared of putting my ideas out in the open. Scared I wouldn’t know what to say, or that I would sound stupid trying to say it.

During the ‘Under Her Eye’ intensive training weekend, Sarah Cartwright’s workshop on public speaking made me realise a number of things about the way I position myself in a space, and how I talk with others. It made me question why I had picked up certain unhelpful habits, and also revisit this social/ professional avoidance. The workshop tied in to a lot of these things I’d been thinking about in the past year or so about gender, class, and communication.

In the workshop activities I realised just how much I slouch to one side or the other, how I cower and hunch my shoulders to seem smaller, less assuming and quieter somehow. Standing with both feet firmly grounded in to the floor felt unnatural and difficult, but stronger and transformative.

I decided to write about networking here in particular because during the training weekend, the word came up a lot, and I had various conversations with other fellows who felt exactly the same way about it. “I hate those situations, I try and avoid them if at all possible!”, “I’m awful at it!”, “Oh God, no. I really don’t like having to talk about myself”. I thought it would be useful to consider some strategies for those who have an aversion to  this kind of professional social interaction.

First and foremost, we need to remember that it is OK to be confident. You’re not automatically an egomaniac just because you didn’t sit by yourself at a private viewing. Now don’t get me wrong, narcissists LOVE to network, but it isn’t  just for them, and they’re probably not getting the most out of it either. That’s because what networking really needs to be is sharing, and listening, and being curious together.

On the road to getting better at this kind of stuff I’ve found there are certain, simple things you can do that make the whole experience easier, more productive, and infinitely more enjoyable. Here are my 8 simple rules to networking.

8 Simple Rules to Networking:

1. Drink the Wine – There is always wine at these things. It will loosen you up and help make Rule 2 more authentic (works with buffet food too if you’re a non-drinker).
2. Talk about the Wine – Connecting on a human level first will make it easier to connect professionally and/orcreatively. If you’re sober, ask someone what they think ofthe houmous, or whether they’ve seen the new Avengersfilm.
3. Smile – With all these worries flying around we can forget the smallest of things. Nerves can make you turn inward. Relax, make eye contact, and be yourself.
4. Fake it ’til you Make it – Be confident even if you don’t feel that way. The more you practice, the less you’ll need to pretend. Own the space you’re standing in. Be welcoming, but ground yourself.
5. Find Connections – Don’t just burst in, inanely shouting your PhD working title (we’ve all done it). Ask people what’s brought them there. Be interested in others and you’ll find genuine reasons to introduce your own work and ideas.
6. Compliment Them – No wait, sorry, not that. I got confused because it’s starting to sound like I’m writing a blog about dating. Don’t compliment them. It’ll be weird anduncomfortable.
7. Quality not Quantity – Don’t try and work the whole room. You’re never going to be able to speak to everyone and it’s not about that anyway. Make sure your conversations count, and be present. No one likes speaking with a person who has one eye on someone else they’d rather be talking to.
8. Swap Numbers – Dating blog alert! Really though, if you speak to someone and you feel as though you’d like to talk to them again, or follow their work, don’t be afraid to ask for their contact. Swap emails, website, social media profiles. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship!

So, if you find yourself hiding in the corner at the next conference you attend, remember these things and try them out. Don’t forget that your voice is important, your opinions are valid, and most of the time, the things we are afraid of doing stop being so scary exactly when we start doing them.

Natalie Lee is an artist specialising in installation and solo performance, exploring themes of home, identity, and attachment to place. Her most recent work aims to destabilise and challenge popular cultural/media narratives that exist around council estates and their residents. Her artwork has been exhibited in Liverpool, Manchester, and Hull and she has presented research at conferences both in the UK and internationally. She is currently one of Invisible Dust’s Young Curators for 2018/19.



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