Wherever you heard it, you know networking is a vital part of establishing yourself in both the job and freelance market. Unfortunately for introverts, taking yourself to a networking event may feel like pulling out your own teeth.
While the efforts and events are valuable, you don’t need to agonize over the process. You’re certainly not alone, and you can always leave if you start to feel overwhelmed. Plus, with a little preparation and practice, it will get easier every time.
Get your head in the game
First off, let’s clarify one common misconception about introversion. Being an introverted person does not necessarily mean that you are shy or anti-social. As Kate Finley with Fast Company puts it, “introversion vs. extroversion is about where you draw your energy from”.
Where extroverts draw their energy from social situations, introverts recharge alone. An introvert may enjoy being social, but a crowded room can feel intimidating, and often makes them feel like shutting down and ducking out.
To avoid this, take a moment to assess your needs and expectations before an event. What do you hope to gain from the experience? Set a goal, like getting five business cards or talking to an industry influencer at the event. With something quantifiable in mind, you can regain your focus when you feel like putting your head in the corner.
Finally, give yourself a time limit. A crowded room may make you feel mentally drained after a while, so what do you think is a reasonable amount of time to meet your goals and have an enjoyable experience? Rather than over-extending yourself, be ready to end on a good note!
Do your homework
For your next event, you’ll want to start narrowing your focus a bit. If it’s been put together through a social network or group, see if you can look into who will be there. Once you have a working lineup, create a Twitter List and add as many guests as you can find so that everyone can meet each other and make an initial connection.
If the registration list isn’t available, at least look into who is hosting and/or headlining the event. While these people are typically in higher demand once it comes time to network, it’s good to have your due diligence done in case you get the opportunity to chat.
Finally, if you get a chance to check out the venue, do it! Restaurants, outdoor spaces and even hotel lobbies should be open for you to scope out for quiet corners and spaces away from high traffic. That way, if you meet someone you’d like to chat with further, you’ve got a destination already in mind.
Practice your conversation skills
The art of conversation can be a challenge for anyone – even extroverts. Introverts tend to think and evaluate before they speak, but sometimes that means getting lost in your thoughts rather than engaged in the conversation.
Thinking on the fly may be tough, but there are some areas that you can practice in advance.
First, once you have the opportunity to meet someone, how are you going to introduce yourself? Think about a couple of icebreakers to have ready, and questions you’ll ask to get to know someone. For your part, be ready to answer, “what do you do,” with your 15 second pitch – you’ll be doing it a lot.
If conversation feels unnatural to you, practice on a friend, your significant other, or even in the mirror. Take short breaks between rounds of practice and come back to it throughout the day. The repetition will help relieve your anxiety.
But remember, it takes two people to have a conversation, so play to your strengths, too! Listening is a significant part of a valuable conversation, so do it well. Don’t interrupt, and craft thoughtful responses to your new connection’s points. To make this easier, try to keep your conversation group small, with just one or two other people.
Finally, be nice! Chances are you’ll see many of these people again as you continue to network in your industry, so don’t do anything that would make for an awkward encounter in the future. Stay professional, personable and polite – don’t burn bridges!
While you’re there
Now you’ve made it to the event, and hopefully it’s not as scary as you were anticipating. Time to meet and greet! While your conversation and outreach should be natural, be strategic.
See someone else who is alone in the room? Chances are, they’re a fellow introvert. Make an introduction, and try to reconnect periodically throughout the event. You’ll help make each other feel more comfortable, and they may end up being a good buddy to join you for future events. Of course, make sure you’re meeting other people, too!
As you circulate and talk to people, consider your body language – are your arms or legs crossed? Are you jittery, twirling your hair, fussing with your outfit? Don’t let your nervous habits overwhelm the impression you make. If it helps to carry something with you, like a drink or notepad, do it – it will help still your hands and keep your posture professional.
If the venue offers drinks, watch your alcohol intake. One beer or glass of wine may help you loosen up a bit, but make sure you consciously switch to juice or water, and drink slowly. Subconscious habit may be to sip more often to occupy lulls in conversation, but try not to indulge that compulsion.
You networked and survived – congratulations! But you’re not done just yet. Those business cards you set out to collect won’t just be for decoration – you need to follow up with a personalized message to everyone you talked to. Don’t wait for them to reach out, take the initiative! Not everyone you met will do it for you.
When you follow up, be sure to include social media links like LinkedIn and Twitter so that you can keep up with each other moving forward. See who responds (not everyone will, but that’s okay), and who you enjoy the most. Offer to grab coffee or lunch, and you may have just made yourself a friend.
Hop to it!
Networking doesn’t have to be an intimidating struggle. Start with the steps that you’re comfortable with, and keep moving from there. You have to put yourself out there to succeed, and building connections can lead to more opportunities than you think.
What tips do you have for networking? What’s worked for you, and what hasn’t? Let me know in the comments below.
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