We’ve all met the person who charges around a room, walking fearlessly into conversations, shaking hands with everyone they meet and somehow managing to come away with everyone’s name, business card and life story. If you are that person, good for you – your natural style meshes well with the fact that business relies on making connections with people you don’t know.
But what if you’re an introvert, even a little shy? You’re pretty comfortable with your friends and family, but the prospect of a room full of strangers fills you with dread. And maybe the whole “networking” thing strikes you as sort of shallow, sort of manipulative, not really your style?
Fear not. There are dozens of good resources on networking, but we’ll take a moment to discuss some ways to go at it, introvert-style.
Stop to Think about what Networking Really Is
Some people mentally group networking in with “sales” — as in, you’re cornering potential “customers” and trying to sell them a “product” (you). Immediately, their back goes up against the whole idea. “I’m a hardworking professional, why do I have to sell myself like some kind of commodity on the open market?” Or, “The flashiest ones always win those contests, and I don’t DO flashy.” Or even, “The whole idea of cold-calling someone or walking up to someone I don’t know makes me want to throw up. I’m just not cut out for this!”
Start by throwing out that whole mental model of what networking is. When you need a plumber or a dentist or a roofer, do you open the phone book and choose one at random, or do you ask around and see who’s known and recommended among your friends? Probably the second option. If your project needs a graphic designer or a user interface expert or a web programmer, would you rather wade through a hundred resumes, or call up someone that you already know is trustworthy, experienced, and a pretty good bet for working well with you and your team?
You want to be that known, trusted person. And while “working the room” shaking every hand and coming away with a fistful of business cards does get the extrovert… well, a lot of business cards, your introvert style can be the better one for the equally-important “trust” part of the relationship. Read on.
The Best Time to Network is When You Don’t Need Anything
If you walk into a situation focused on your own goal (such as a job), you won’t be relaxed and natural, and you’ll regard every interaction that doesn’t end in a job referral as a failure. Too many “failures” and you’ll lose heart quickly. People will also sense that you’re not listening to their thoughts and interests, because you’re too focused on your own, which is a major turn-off. Nobody wants to feel as if you’re only interested in how they can get you what you want.
When you aren’t after anything in particular, you’re more relaxed, and free to do a lot of listening rather than talking. As an introvert, you’ll be going with your in-born style rather than against it – another plus when you’re trying to come across as natural and easy to connect with. Building your networking muscles now, when it’s easy, will serve you well later, when the pressure’s on. So get started now.
What if you really DO need a job, or a client referral? Go ahead and be honest, but don’t put people on the spot to help you get one. Ask for advice, or perspectives on the part of the market they work in, or thoughts about who you should be talking to.
Know your Interactional Style
Some introverts find groups exhausting, because everyone else seems to be firing out comments and responses and propelling the conversation at a too-fast-to-process speed. Other introvert types enjoy listening and watching, and inserting the odd comment when there’s something they specifically want to say.
However, if groups are not your thing, then look for individuals. Pick someone who’s standing alone at the edge of the group, walk up, and introduce yourself. They’ll probably be happy that you took the initiative.
If even that level of crowd-surfing is beyond your comfort zone, consider getting involved in online discussions, where you have a little more breathing room to take in what people say and put together your response. Explore the groups on LinkedIn, and contribute positively in an area you have some expertise in. Try a few different groups, to see what kind of chemistry each one offers.
Get Into View
A study of students living in university dorms found that those who were randomly assigned to the rooms in the high-traffic areas near entrances and exits were rated as more popular by their dorm-mates. Why? In a world of open doors and foot traffic they were more familiar, and as such more approachable and overall better-known.
Do what you can to make this principle work for you. If you need a quiet work space away from noise and interruption, fine. But make a point of eating your lunch in high-traffic areas; volunteer to take tickets at the door for company social events; make choices that put you in people’s line of sight. You’ll become a familiar face to them, they’ll become a familiar face to you, and the first, hardest hurdle is painlessly accomplished.
Anyone Can Be a Networking Contact
Another common concern for introverts is the hurdles they’ll have to get over to even make contact with a VP or CEO or other bigwig, and then the pressure of having exactly four seconds to impress that person. What they don’t realize is that productive networking contacts can come at all levels and through all kinds of interactions.
One IT professional we know got wind of a major opportunity when a temporary secretary (an acquaintance from a previous contract) overhead the hiring manager arguing with a new hire who had just announced that they were leaving for another position. The security guard who stops to chat a moment on his hourly rounds can turn out to have a daughter who owns a company in the sector you’re most interested in. Some people are excited by the prospect of winning their way through the crowd to the attention of a highly-placed person; others are horrified. Just remember that if you are one of the second group, that highly-placed people can come in a lot of forms and roles. Talk to everyone!
Trick Other People; Trick Yourself
You may not be an extrovert, but you can pretend to be one, with a surprising amount of success. Think about someone whose get-out-there-and-connect skills you respect, and try on that persona for size. It won’t change your basic nature, but you may find that it’s something you can manage for a few hours at a time, without anyone knowing that it’s an act.
Keep tabs on your facial expression; introverts often seem to be frowning or unfriendly when what they really are is listening intently to what’s going on. See if you can keep a relaxed smile on at all times and you’ll seem more approachable – and you’ll feel that way, too.
If you don’t mind getting in touch with your inner brain chemist, try power posing before you need to go into a networking situation. In this fascinating TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy describes the science of using your body posture to change your brain response. It’s hard to argue with the results.
We haven’t even scratched the surface of why you should network, particularly in today’s economy. But we hope we’ve given you a few different ways of looking at what can be a very intimidating topic for many of us.