Networking can transform a person and a group; conversations at business socials and other gatherings can change your perspective and people you meet can alter your sphere of influence. But if you’re introvert, like me, networking events are frightening and painfully difficult to navigate.
In the past couple of years, I have gotten better at meeting new people. One of the main reasons is that I have learned to truly value people while simultaneously not caring about their opinions of me (and my social savvy or lack thereof). Plus, I no longer consider networking events as forums to meet potential clients; instead, I perceive such gatherings as opportunities to meet people who are eager to discuss topics of interest to a limited number of people.
A few weeks ago, I heard about and then quickly decided to attend a local conference on digital media. Its organizers were holding a pre-conference social event for just $10; unable to resist a bargain, I snapped up a ticket.
But as the evening of the social drew closer, I started to dread this gathering. For starters, I was busy both professionally and personally and wasn’t sure if I could or should spare the time to attend.
Then the hosts tweeted that they were looking forward to meeting me and included an image of the puzzle-like piece that I was charged with placing on a community display. So, I felt obligated. My absence, I reasoned, would be noticed.
At the appointed time, I dressed up and headed out the door, hoping that I would survive the next few hours with my ego and self-confidence intact.
Later, as I drove home, I thought about how I had enjoyed myself.
And, then, the reality hit me. I had successfully attended and participated in a networking event.
That I had been transformed from an inarticulate, resistant introvert to a friendly, engaging conversationalist seemed odd. First, I am not 100% sure that I was a polished professional; but my enjoyment was a testament to the change that had occurred in me. (Admittedly, I had to skip one of the sessions the next day in order to take a mental break, indicating that my introversion remained.)
Still, the good news is that if I can learn, other introverts may also be able to network. Here are steps that may help you avoid intimidation and have fun:
Pick your networking event carefully.
Don’t pressure yourself to select the absolutely perfect networking event. You can’t know with certainty whether a gathering will be friendly toward newcomers or those with an introverted bent.
But you can choose an activity that will involve people with whom you share common goals. So, you might avoid general business events that bore you and attend ones focused on narrowly defined subject matters that fascinate you.
Plan to make friends.
One of my breakthrough mindsets about networking is that my focus should be on making friends, not impressing people, landing a new account, or coming home with the most business cards (or giving away all my cards).
I realized how sincere I am about friendship during an uncomfortable moment at that recent event. To close what had been a meaningful conversation, I told an entrepreneur to let me know if I could help her in any way. She responded politely by advising me that she intended to develop the content of her website herself but would let me know if she needed a writer. I felt awkward. When I offered my assistance, it was not to land a paying client but to be generous, perhaps by introducing her to professionals in her targeted niche or providing insights into reaching her audience.
Her misunderstanding reinforced to me that my purpose was not to drum up business for myself. My purpose that night was to get to know people with the goal of learning, sharing, giving, and becoming better at my work.
Study the speaker list.
You don’t have to obsess about knowing the credentials of event speakers or every important person you may meet. Really, I have learned that not obsessing is more productive than worrying about properly greeting a VIP or famous person. But having a working knowledge of who’s who can be useful.
For example, I made a note of three people who I wanted to meet at the social event based on their speaking topics at the conference. And, happily, I bumped into each person. Even though my conversational patter was sparse, “hey, aren’t you a speaker?,” they were thrilled that I even noticed or paid attention to the agenda.
A bit of knowledge, recognition, and flattery will get you somewhere, at least to fill the void in a brief conversation.
Prepare a brief statement about yourself.
Have a response to basic questions like, “so what do you do?” and “what is your specialty?” I know this advice sounds obvious but it’s been difficult for me to speak about my work intelligently in the past.
My interests and activities are somewhat broad so pinpointing what I should say has been overwhelming as I wondered exactly what part of my work I should mention. So, I’ve learned to focus on aspects of my background that are most relevant to the networking event. This approach sounds simple but, until recently, has evaded me.
So, if I am attending a financial conference, I can open by explaining that I am a writer who specializes in investing and mortgages. At a digital media gathering, I can share that I am a blogger who writes about transformation and covers personal finance, fitness, and faith topics.
The self-introduction doesn’t have to be perfect. But you should be able to tell what you do without taking a long pause as if you had never considered the question before.
Develop interesting stories to share.
At one event that I attended, I was asked to share a story. The problem is I didn’t have one to tell.
So, I resolved to develop a few interesting stories to share at the right moments. Sure, an extrovert is often the life of the party because of her openness and ability to banter endlessly. But, as an introvert with deep and intricate thought processes, you can offer a unique perspective of a series of events that will likely fascinate others.
Here the elements of an interesting story that you should remember when preparing yours:
- The topic is relevant to the listener (relevancy is the hardest part for me to figure out, but once I do, the rest is easy)
- The situation is presented plainly and then elaborated on so the listener can fully understand the circumstances
- The personalities, family backgrounds, and cultural attitudes of characters are described
- There is a challenge that requires persistence, unique knowledge, etc. to overcome
- There is anxiety, fear, and dread on your part
- There is a plot twist
- There is a happy resolution, either in the story itself or later, upon reflection.
Everyone loves a great story. Being able to share one not only keeps the conversation moving but also makes you seem interesting (you are interesting!). Plus, a well-told story reveals aspects of your personality in a way that other types of conversations do not.
Prepare a statement about your purpose for attending the event.
At this point, I feel that I need to apologize for talking so much about myself; it seems unnatural, arrogant, and pushy. But my purpose is not to show you how to dominate conversations but to make sure you can speak intelligently when asked a question.
A great way to start a conversation at a networking event is to ask, “Why are you here tonight?” Generally, responses will give you insight into a person’s work, her motivations, her realm of influence, the event itself, and more.
Since you’ve posed the question, your conversation partner may politely return the favor and ask you about your purpose. Be prepared with a brief statement outlining your projects and what you hope to gain (or give) by making an appearance. For example, I might explain that many of my colleagues are spread out in the United States and I want to meet more local people in my field.
Know that it’s okay to move to the next conversation.
Introverts tend to enjoy deep, meaningful conversations with one or two people. But networking events typically demand a different type of interaction. Navigating personal preferences and social expectations is terrifying at worst and confusing at best.
Really, it’s okay to abandon other people at an event, particularly those who don’t seem interested in continuing to talk with you or feel compelled to talk to more people.
What’s astonishing is that you can be awkwardly honest about your exit. You can say something like, “well, I guess I need to meet more people; it was great to meet you and I hope to see you again soon.” This statement shows that you understand the need to fulfill a social contract of networking (whether you agree with the rules or not), rather than seeming rude or ungrateful for their willingness to speak with you briefly.
Talk to people who are not speaking to anyone.
As an introvert, I hate to see others who are alone and possibly intimidated by the prospect of meeting new people. Often, I channel my empathy into assertively welcoming the person who may be reticent like me.
To network effectively, you don’t have to introduce yourself to groups of people deep in conversation among themselves. Instead, find a person who is standing alone and strike up a conversation. She’ll be grateful that you are paying attention to the networking dynamics and that you rescued her from social awkwardness. Sure, you’ll meet folks who are standoffish but you’ll also meet folks who are engaging conversationalists.
At the networking event, I approached a woman who was obviously alone and invited her to meet some folks who I had been hanging out with (yes, I had managed to become part of a group). It turns out that she was one of the speakers (who I had made a note to meet!) and was quite the talker. I barely had to say much else all night!
Ask questions and listen.
People love to talk about themselves and introverts are great listeners, so you should be a big hit at any social gathering, whether business networking or otherwise.
But rather than rack your brain for appropriate words after an introduction, develop conversation starters before the event. You might open with a general statement, such as “tell me about your work (or your current project or yourself)” Let the other person choose where to start. All you have to do is listen and periodically comment to keep the dialogue moving.
If you want to go deeper or are in the situation where you continue to talk with someone for an extended period of time, then devise questions that nearly anyone could answer. For example, ask her about her leisure activities or recent books she’s read.
If you can learn to relax just a bit, then your natural curiosity and conversational skills can take over. If you are too scared to get started, then social disaster is likely to follow (at least in your mind); but if you have just a few tools in your conversational arsenal, then you can build from there.
Note that you will still experience awkward silences and people who seem to shun you for no reason. But you can learn not to let these rare instances bother you. Any annoyances will easily be outweighed by the genuine conversations you’ll have.
As I reflect on these networking events, I realize that I can apply these tips to other aspects of my life. I can think of ways to open and guide conversations, share scripture that I’ve memorized, embrace people that I meet in seemingly “random” encounters (like Paul’s encounter with Lydia in Acts 16:13-15), and share stories that offer insights into my faith.