Ah, networking. The process of walking into a roomful of strangers and making the acquaintance of some of them. Simple, right?
Simple, but not easy, at least for about 70% of the population.
According to Devora Zack, in Networking for People Who Hate Networking, 70% of people are either full-fledged introverts or centroverts—folks in between the extro- and introverted camps. It’s this 70% for whom networking is challenging at best and, at worst, just this side of pulling your own teeth with a pair of pliers.
So, if networking makes you crazy, you’re in the majority.
I am a certifiable introvert, and have plenty of challenges with networking, including the urge to stand like a jacklighted opossum, wondering what to do next. In spite of this, I made a commitment to networking about a year ago, and since then I’ve become able to not only get into the room, but to talk to people, make connections, and even have a good time.
Based on my experience, I have a few tips to share for introverts who either want or need to network:
Don’t just go to network. Go to an event you’d be interested in even if you weren’t going to network at all. That way, you’re less likely to blow it off at the last minute and if the networking doesn’t go so well, it’s not a total loss.
Look for a solitary person. That person standing alone by the wall? A kindred spirit! Sidle over there and introduce yourself.
Invade a small group. No loners in sight? Find a group of two or three people—they’ll be talking. Walk up to them, smile, and just stand there (looking at the people, not your shoes). If one of them makes eye contact but keeps talking, just nod. Sooner or later someone will speak to you, and then it’s introductions all around and you’re off to the races.
Sit at a table with people. Similar to invading a small group. Find a semi-occupied table, ask if the empty seat is free, and grab it. You’re in—your table mates will speak to you, unless they were raised by wolves.
Make with the good manners in the chow line. This is a great warm-up if you don’t have your nerve up quite yet. Get in line for coffee or whatever and be helpful. Grab somebody a cup and let them go first. Hand the person behind you the tongs for the deep-fried mystery thingies, saying something clever like, “here you go.”
Chow down (a little). A coffee or a cookie gives you something to do if you’re not talking, and that prop in your hand gives you a little something to hide behind, in a psychological kind of way. But don’t go crazy. Just fill one hand, so you can shake and exchange cards with the other.
Stand there until somebody talks to you. No, don’t. The whole look-for-a-loner thing only works if the loner’s not you, at least in my experience. I know this isn’t logical, but life’s like that.
Practice. Your networking will get better with practice, just like anything else. Go to networking events regularly, on a schedule that works for you. If once a month, or every other month, is all you can stand, stick with that until you feel like you can practice more. Even if you just show up the first few times and speak to nobody, just being in the room with all those strangers will help you build up to making that first contact.