Back in the early 80’s I was standing in line for a waterslide at the social hour during a computer graphics convention. As an introverted software engineer, I always dreaded those networking events because they were so formal and held in stuffy hotels — I didn’t enjoy acting “professional” in the way I believed was required, so I would grab my food and run.

But that year the convention was held at a water theme park in Las Vegas. Standing there dripping wet in my bathing suit holding a belly board, I forgot all about my professional image and struck up a conversation with two other software engineers.

Two years later I was looking for a job, and recognized their company in the classified ads. It was the wackiest cover letter I had ever written in my life, opening with “You may not remember me, but we met at a waterslide.”

Not only did they remember me, their boss was the hiring manager and I got the job.

As I reflect back on what really happened back then, I realize I had a belief that I had to be somebody else in order to network with strangers in a professional setting. When I just relaxed and was myself, it opened doors.

How different is your “professional self” from your natural self?

While you obviously need to have healthy boundaries about what you share in a business setting, the question here is “Do you take on a fake identity when expressing yourself professionally?”

Putting on a performance and playing a role rather than being your natural self can be an unconscious pattern even after years of self-inquiry. If your profession isn’t acting, where does that professional “performance” happen and at what cost?

Are you a consultant or leader who feels that you have to be “the one who knows,” never to be caught without an answer to a question? Or a financial planner who believes that stiff formality is required, since your natural humor would be disrespectful of your clients’ money?

In today’s business climate with so many options, people prefer to work with those that they like and trust. Without dependable security, a solid network of connections that value who you really are and want to listen to what you have to say in the midst of information overload is mission critical.

What opportunities for perception and connection are you missing when you’re performing from a script or worrying about how you look?

It may not be realistic to change this habit overnight. Instead, consider just noticing when you are wearing your “professional identity” role — and that will open up the possibility for something new to arise.

Then, as you gain trust in the value of your natural expressiveness in any business setting, your prospective clients, partners, and referral network will see who you really are and be immediately drawn to you if they are the perfect fit.