Networking can be daunting enough, without having to battle your own nature as an introvert as you navigate the tricky waters of small talk and collecting connections. Do you find yourself avoiding networking events because you simply dread joining, initiating, or otherwise making conversations when you could be home on your couch with your dog and take-out and some nice, un-intimidating television?
If you’re the type to skulk around a networking event using every trick in the book to avoid having to talk to anyone, then slinking home feeling sorry for yourself and like you wasted a perfectly good evening in, then you probably need a little boost. Believe it or not, there are other ways to manage networking events that don’t involve you constantly lapping from snack table to bar table to bathroom, looking at your phone for dear life as though the most important email of your career just came in, or staring off into the middle distance to avoid making eye contact with anyone by accident. These tricks are useful—and are probably your standard coping mechanism. But you don’t have to hide behind them all the time.
Use your powers for good.
Now might be the moment for you to realize that introverts are actually secret heroes when it comes to networking. You’re even at an advantage in certain situations. How could that be possible, you ask? When all around you, extroverts are landing business cards and launching into elevator pitches between sips of vodka tonic, and you’re still standing in the corner by the ficus plant?
Turns out, people aren’t all that into being sold. Don’t forget that networking events are dominated by a room full of people trying to sell themselves. The confident ones look like they’re running the show, but it’s not so simple! They’re also the most aggressive, the most likely to steamroll into a conversation, rattle off their pitch, and move on like a mercenary to the next clump of possible connections. Meanwhile, there’s a whole world of shadow networking taking place—the kind that doesn’t even look like networking—and that is simple conversation. Real human connection.
That’s where introverts come in. Introverts are great at listening when others blather on. They’re usually interested in other people, and relieved not to have to be doing all the talking. You can use your introvert status to be the favorite conversation partner of everybody’s night, simply by letting them talk, and making a few intelligent comments now and then to show that you’re really listening. Who knows! You might even come to find you get so absorbed in the conversation that you forget to be nervous and intimidated.
Be yourself—don’t fight it.
The major take away is this: if you’re an introvert and afraid of networking, stop trying to force yourself into the extrovert mold. There are ways to accomplish what extroverts accomplish, all while remaining true to your introverted, crowd-averse self. The first step might be to really know and honor your limits. Are you just a shell of a person after 9 p.m.? Don’t agree to any meetings or functions in the later evening. Are you pretty good at sussing out which events will actually be fruitful or productive for you? Avoid the ones that aren’t. (Just make sure to attend the ones that are—religiously.)
It’s not just that you’re shy. It’s that you’re thrown off by environments that are noisy and overwhelming—that doesn’t make you any less of an asset or a good connection. That just means you have to find introverted ways to get through an event that you would otherwise find quite challenging. The best strategy there is to be as prepared as possible. Do your homework. Is there anyone at the event you’d particularly like to meet? What are your goals for the evening? What sort of advice or information are you looking to acquire? Bone up on the people or companies you’re trying to sidle up to. Come up with a handful of questions to have at the ready. Write them down and rehearse them ahead of time until they feel natural enough coming out of your mouth. Don’t worry about being clever or hilarious. Keep it simple, be yourself, be prepared—and you’ll never put your foot in your mouth trying to do verbal backflips to impress someone.
Show up early.
If you’re one of the first people there, you can take advantage of the fact that most early birds feel awkward enough hovering by the canapés before the crowd gets going. Take advantage of this leveling of the nervousness playing field by offering up conversational life rafts to your fellow early birds. Groups won’t have formed yet that you’d have to wiggle your way into. You might even find a buddy you can network with all night. Or you can get most of what you came for before the room is totally full and sounds of people chatting and glasses tinkling are bouncing off the walls and making you super anxious.
Set a goal of meeting a handful of people. Getting a few answers, business cards, etc. Once you hit your quota, unless there’s some big-ticket person there you’re dying to get in front of, you can give yourself permission to sneak out having succeeded for the night.
Relax and try to keep it light.
Desperation doesn’t look very good on anyone. Be yourself. Use your quiet calm as an asset—you’ll look far more confident than you feel and you might even appear to have a certain degree of gravitas or other kinds of commanding presence. Listen, listen, listen. And remember to take a bit of time for yourself. Head out to the lobby and sit down for a moment with your phone. Go to the loo and splash some water on your face. Take deep breaths. It will all be over soon.
Be compassionate for your fellow introverts.
They are out there. And keep in mind that even extroverts get scared of networking events. If you think everyone else in the room is just as insecure or uncomfortable with the process as you are, you’re probably right. And even if you aren’t, it will help you to approach people like humans, not just as “contacts” or connections for your LinkedIn empire.
Reward yourself for doing something challenging.
Keep your eye on the prize, whatever you’ve decided that should be—a massage? a pedicure? a new golf club? an order of take-out french fries or a milkshake on your way home? Treat yourself to something, however small, when you get through a networking event. The promise of that treat, even if it’s just a hot bath when you get home, can be a powerful motivator for you to get in, get out, and still get things done.
Go your own way.
And if you’re still just flummoxed by the big conference hotel ballroom mingle, or the meet-n-greet harbor booze cruise, try making yup your own networking strategy. Start an “interest group” of friends and colleagues and friends-of-colleagues and colleagues-of-colleagues that are all united under a common interest. Make your “networking events” stand singular and apart as intimate, smaller gatherings. Set new trends. Host dinner parties. Or get invited to them—rather than the big corporate name tag mixers. It’s totally possible for you to make your own networking environment. You might even be way ahead of the game.
Don’t worry so much.
Above all, remember to use your intuition. You know yourself best. And you probably are better at reading a crowd than you think you are—and better than the bull-headed extroverts running around pimping themselves out. Think before speaking. Observe before you offer. Ask questions and let others talk about themselves as you get comfortable in the conversation—they will love you for it! One of your best secret weapons is your reserve. You’ll never be suspected of false enthusiasm or over eagerness if you simply stay true to your own introversion and study the social cues of people in your conversation before making any contributions. You may even be projecting a sort of social poise you never knew you had—simply by not trying too hard to be an extrovert when you just aren’t!
What you shouldn’t do is cower in the corner—or only spend time talking to the three people in the room you already know. If you find yourself in this position, don’t panic. Just try a new maneuver. Ask your pals for help. Is there someone there they know that they could introduce you to, perhaps? Or help you make an introduction? Or simply come with you to the bar so you can join another conversation with a buddy by your side?
There are a ton of useful tools out there for you, as an introvert, to wield. Including some secret weapons you didn’t even realize you had. When you start thinking of your nature as an introvert as something that could help you, rather than hinder you professionally, you can start to cultivate a system that works for you.