If you're an introvert, thinking about networking might make you want to run away and hide. After all, not everyone feels comfortable walking into a room full of strangers and striking up conversation with someone they know nothing about.
Guess what? You don't have to be an introvert to be horrified by that scenario. In fact, the first thing to remember is that everyone who is there is hoping that someone else will come up to them and start an interesting conversation. Indeed, everyone is there for the same reason -- to make connections that will help them in their career.
Once you redefine networking events, and realize that it's not a speed dating event, the whole event will seem a lot less sinister.
Here are seven ways introverts can ease themselves into a networking event:
1) Volunteer to Help
Before you ever even sign up for a networking event, ask the organizers if they need help the day of the event. Nothing can make you feel more like you belong than being in charge of handling something. It sounds counterintuitive but two of the best jobs for introverts are helping at the check-in table and working with the speaker. Helping with attendance will allow you to know everyone who's attending in advance, so you can scope out those you most want to talk to. And it also allows you to put a name with a face as they arrive so you can ideally walk up to them later.
Similarly, working with the speaker gives you immediate entree to many of the attendees. While you obviously wouldn't want to ask to be in charge of the speaker of a group you've never been to, keep in mind that the programs committee is a great place for someone who's more shy to volunteer. The speaker often doesn’t know anyone either, so they are happy to have someone to talk to. And, usually lots of attendees want to meet the speaker, so it's an easy way for you to meet them too.
2) Arrive with a Friend or Colleague
There's no reason you have to attend the event solo. If you don't know anyone who's interested in the particular event, just grab someone whom you know is a good wing man. Prep them a little so they don't blow your cover; maybe tell them that there’s a speaker you think they might enjoy, or the food at the venue is great, or even just be honest and admit that you'd prefer to attend with someone else. The key to coming as part of a pair, though, is to understand that you won't be standing together in a corner talking. That defeats the purpose of the "networking event." Instead, use their presence to help you break into a group of people who interest you.
3) Prepare Adequately
When you are about to walk into an uncomfortable situation, make sure you have control over everything that you can control. That means that you know where you're going and how to get there. It means that you know the basic organizational plan for the day -- is networking time first? Will there be a program? Is it open seating? Knowing as much as you can about what to expect will ensure that you are as comfortable as you can be. And that extends to your appearance. Make sure that you are wearing clothes that are both appropriate for the occasion and make you feel good. Walking into a room where everyone is in suits and you're in jeans is a recipe for anyone to feel self-conscious, and definitely someone who is shy to begin with.
4) Do Your Best to Hold Up Your End of the Conversation
Whether you are comfortable with conversation or not, make an effort to "throw the ball back." If someone asks you a question, answer it, and throw it back with a question to them. Remember, they might be feeling as awkward as you. Helping make others feel comfortable can go a long way to making you feel comfortable too. And, remember that most people's favorite topic is themselves. Encouraging them to talk about themselves makes YOU look like a great conversationalist, and chances are good that they will walk away feeling great about your skills, because they enjoyed talking about themselves.
5) Have an Exit Line Ready
Is the conversation going nowhere? That might not be your fault or your partner's. Maybe the conversation is just dying. Having a way to politely excuse yourself can let the conversation die a natural death. Have some lines ready, whether it's an excuse, "I think I'll go grab a bite," or just a general, "It was so nice to talk to you. I hope we get the chance to talk again," before making your graceful exit.
6) Be Nice to Yourself
Recognize that it's hard to get out of your comfort zone -- and that's ok. Each time you do it, it does get a little easier. So challenge yourself to go to one event a month, and make two contacts at each event, or whatever seems feasible. When the event is over take the time to remind yourself what a great job you did...That you survived. And maybe have a reward waiting. "If I stay for the whole event, I get to watch my favorite TV show when I get home."
7) Don't Overlook Online Networking
For some people the thought of a networking event is paralyzing, and is unlikely to be successful. Don't feel that you have to go out in person to have it count. With the tools available to us online, from LinkedIn groups to MasterMind groups, it's perfectly possible to take care of your networking needs virtually. For many professionals, their target prospects aren't local anyway! It’s truly a global universe and some people might even find online networking to be more useful for their business.
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It's a fact of life that networking is the No. 1 way to improve your career. And those who are more introverted needn't let that stand in their way. Someone who is shyer and has two meaningful conversations is actually probably accomplishing more than a social butterfly who flits around and has 10 short, unmemorable interactions. Remembering the importance of quality over quantity can be the key to success for an introvert.