If going to networking events makes you feel like Lisa Simpson, today's blog is for you.
Once upon a time, I didn't like talking to other people.
In fact, I kind of dreaded it. Call it a result of scarring from childhood or what you will, but to me, it was whatever the opposite of second nature is. Over the years, I learned to navigate the great big social world through much trial and error, terror and embarrassment, and some moments of pride. Today, I wanted to share just a few tips I've put together for those of you who are fellow introverts, and want to know how to engage in business networking without fear.
1) You don't have to talk all the time.
It may be even more important to be a good listener. In fact, introverts are often already good observers. We use our senses out in the world, and then reflect on what we took in when we are by ourselves. You also may have heard that "people love to talk about themselves, so ask them a lot of questions and be interested" (I'm still not sure about the merit of this, I think enough people have heard it that by now everyone is keen on asking questions, so beware). Overall, it’s not a bad thing to be engaged in a conversation where you are doing 30% of the talking, if your partner likes to orate at length (academic tutors, interestingly, use the same rule, trying to ensure their student does 70% of the talking). There is usually a lot to be learned from these interactions and you can make a warm impression even with silence; if not, at least you got a break from coming up with topics yourself while still looking popular.
2) You don't have to walk up to everyone in the room.
Most networking events attract flocks of people who salivate at the thought of a cold connection, and all the morsels of possibility that could come of their interactions. This means that you will likely be approached even if you are standing in a corner by yourself. In fact, you might even be a more enticing target because you are alone, and an onlooker would not need to break into an ongoing conversation to insert a different topic in (note: hanging out around the food increases your chances of being targeted because crudités can be conversation starters). You might be safer in a bubble of people where you can be the silently nodding, but "hey, I'm still here!" member of the circle. If by some chance you are not approached after all, you might have to walk up to at least one person to make the whole trip worth your time. After all, you showed up to the event for a reason, and you shouldn't leave without having taken at least a step towards making this networking process easier for yourself. Heck, you might even end up forging a crucial connection that starts a back and forth discussion, that later lands you that first dream job you didn’t know you wanted.
3) You can be yourself and say what you are really thinking.
Maybe I'm just speaking for myself, but the thought of networking events used to always be so off-putting because of my expectation of the unavoidable "fakeness and posturing.” As an introvert, I believe in spending my time on true, authentic relationships. I’m not bashing on extroverts and I don’t mean to sound obnoxious, I just don’t do well with those who like to interact with defensive jokes, sarcasm, and never a serious moment. I'd rather have a deep conversation about my values and beliefs as they relate to where our society's health is heading, than a flippant exchange with high-pitched, forced laughter strewn throughout. The thing is, there is merit to both sides. At a networking event there is this feeling in the air of wanting to discover what each person is offering at the general "table of opportunity". No matter who you are, whether you’re a big executive at Venture Capital Firm Y, or an undergraduate at X Institute of Technology, you have value in the form of skills, thoughts, or perspectives. So, how do you use that to connect with other people? You have to connect over honest conversations, about things you have real opinions about and perhaps experience with. The part where hyena laughter can come in is the "small talk" aspect we hear so much about when being coached for these affairs. Now, your genetic makeup may be missing the coding for a natural inclination or desire to do this. However, the good news is that we can learn how to socialize in this way, and even learn to like it. That last part takes a lot of practice, but it does happen slowly and surely. After years, you'll welcome the familiar and comforting opening line of "Wow, these pickles are crazy!" (I actually heard this today at an event, at the food table, when I was standing alone).
In sum, the introvert crowd can utilize networking events both practically and enjoyably. You just have to shape the experience to suit your needs and personality. I've come far down this road to finally crafting deep and fruitful relationships that started with genuine and even fun conversations. If you need some practice first, you can even ask a friend, or perhaps have a 1-on-1 session with your trusted tutor who likely has good experience navigating academic and/or professional crowds (especially if he/she lives in the networking Meccas of Boston or New York). You can even spend some time writing out potential dialogues that could happen, and what your answers or questions might be. The important thing about networking is: don't shun it, own it!
So next time you head out to an event, don't be afraid to be the first to reach out your hand!