No way I am going to spend my night or weekend in a room with a bunch of strangers, forcing a smile until my face hurts and trying to keep up small talk for hours on end. Shoot me now.
Yet everywhere you look, seemingly every article you read on career and personal success, it talks about networking.
“It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
“What can networking do for your success? The right contacts and connections can make or break it. If you’re trying to be successful, it’s the difference between mediocre and big”
– Jeffrey Gitomer, Little Red Book of Selling
And to a large degree, this is all true. No one is Superman, and you can’t possibly go on to lead a life of success on the sheer strength of personal effort. You can’t do it alone, you have to rely on other people to some capacity to help you along the way.
I’m not going to get into defining what networking is and specific reasons of why you should do it. But read virtually any networking or relationship management book, and they will say the same thing: networking is not about working the room and collecting as many business cards as possible. It’s about building concrete, meaningful relationships.
This, my friends, is excellent news. For as I’ve said before, it is these exact types of relationships that introverts excel at forming.
The strength of introverts lies not in their ability to give public speeches or being the life of the party; very few introverts are ever the popular kids in school. Instead, they are much more adept at forming a small, close-knit group of friends that they rely on for just about everything. They would much prefer having 3 or 4 really close friends, and simply being cordial with the rest.
After all, when your back is against the wall and you really need some help, what would you rather have: a contact list of 50 names, yet no one picks up the phone, or a list of 3 names of which you know at least two will pick up and be there to help you within 20 minutes?
Break Large Events Down into Smaller Groups
This exact same concept can and should be applied to your professional life.
It’s not about having 3,000 connections on LinkedIn. It’s about having the kind of professional relationships where people trust you enough to give you their personal email addresses and phone numbers, so you can reach them in a moment’s notice when you really need some help.
To accomplish this end, you can use the exact same strategies you use in your personal life, whether you realize these are strategies or not.
How did you find your current group of close friends? If you’re an introvert, it most likely was not by attending some party or out at the club. Maybe you attended an event, like a work function, book club, or sports game, and hit it off with one of the attending members when split of into smaller groups.
Or maybe you were invited to hang out through a common friend. The point is that you used your strength in connecting with small groups of people to build lasting relationships, and while it may not seem like it, this is indeed a strategy – one that can be applied to network successfully in your professional life
The key is to maximize your strength in small group settings, interacting with people on a one-on-one basis as much as possible, instead of trying to overcome your anxiety in large group settings. It’s hard enough to go to events like this when you know a couple of people attending, but going to a business conference by yourself? Good luck.
This will require a bit of proactivity on your part, but taking the time to plan out who you want to meet with and how you want to do so is well worth the effort. Use email and technology to its ultimate effectiveness
Next time you attend a large networking event or a industry conference, do your research ahead of time instead of just winging it upon arrival.
You can typically find a registration list of attending companies and speakers, and sometimes even find the entire guest list. Comb through these lists and identify individuals who you would like to get to know or speak with, and email them in advance. Tell them you are attending the event as well, and would love to meet up with them and talk about whatever it is you are interested in. I’ve personally used this to great effect before conferences or local business events in my community, offering to meet people for breakfast/coffee, or simply to talk after one of their presentations.
People get extremely busy once an event starts, as most people come in with the same above-mentioned wing-it strategy. Fill up people’s calendars beforehand, utilizing your research skills to communicate with people in a one-on-one setting. Even if you can’t set up a meeting beforehand, you will be more comfortable at the event knowing that you have established warm leads with the key people you would most like to speak with, and it will help alleviate any stress or awkwardness when you go to approach these people later on.
Another great strategy for networking events is to simply show up early. It allows you to get more comfortable when there are fewer people at the event to speak with and get to know.
This way, as more people gradually arrive, it feels like they are entering your space, and you can introduce yourself to people on more of a one-on-one basis again, as opposed to that terrifying feeling you get in your stomach when you walk into a room of a hundred people you don’t know very well, and all eyes are on you as you walk in the door. Talk about paralyzing. This is when most people make a beeline straight to the restroom or the back of the event, neither of which put you in a position to meet with or talk to anybody new.
Beat this anxiety by connecting with people ahead of time, and utilizing your disposition toward more intimate conversations to not only eliminate (as much as you can) this anxiety, but to make better connections with people you actually want to get to know.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t still hand out lots of business cards if you can. Market yourself as much as you’re comfortable with, but no more. Don’t try to push yourself into low-leverage activities.
Maximize Your Strength in Intimate Settings
These same strategies also apply outside of large networking events to meeting people within your surrounding community, even within your current company.
The end goal is to simply get to know people on more of a personal level in your professional life. That’s all networking is, and as an introvert, this can be readily accomplished by applying your natural strengths; we are better communicators in intimate settings and close environments.
Invite people to lunch, or to get coffee. Hell, even a simple phone call will work (and was my preferred method for a long time). Introverts are naturally great at listening and reading other people. This is a skill that is best utilized in personal settings.
If you identify someone you want to get to know better, or that would provide a great future resource, try and find a way to speak with them on an individualized basis or in a small group setting so you can get to know them better without the anxiety and intimidation that comes with your prototypical networking events.
So next time you find yourself headed to a conference or event, don’t stress out. Just plan ahead. Do your research, identify people you would like to meet, and reach out to them beforehand.
Same goes for general networking within your community or industry.
Use your natural abilities and tendencies to your advantage over, say, a cup of coffee, and you will start to see that networking is really not all that hard. You can get to know the individual across from you on a more personal level, and you will feel more comfortable in opening up and communicating with them, building towards the close relationships that introverts so innately desire.