Issa Rae in Insecure
In her famous TED Talk on “the power of introverts,” Susan Cain explained that managing introversion is about learning “how you respond to stimulation, including social stimulation.” Personally, when it comes to networking events, the barrage of people, repetitive conversations, and inability to let my guard down overwhelm me before anything even starts. I’m scanning the room, searching for a friendly face, and working out how to make that “perfect” introduction. But there are benefits to introversion! Tapping into those parts might simply require a little preparation.
Building a strong network is one of the keys to professional success — but you can’t snap your fingers and expect one to materialize. (And you shouldn’t snap your fingers at people anyway.) It is easy to say, “Just get out there!” to anyone who wants to start making genuine connections, but networking can be anxiety-inducing for many people, including introverts, who don’t exactly revel at the prospect of attending large company events or multi-day conferences. Being an introvert isn’t a bad thing or something to be embarrassed about; you just have to figure out what works for you. Here are tips for nervous introverts on how to improve their networking experience — while still finding the joy in meeting new people.
Troubleshoot the Problem
It’s incredibly important to figure out why networking turns you off. Do the noise and crowds overwhelm you? Does making small talk with strangers feel inauthentic? Are you worried about coming across as silly or uninformed? Get clear on the areas you have the most trouble with and then consider talking about them with a friend. This might help you figure out how to be your best self at professional events.
After chatting with a friend, I discovered that my struggle with networking wasn’t rooted in a fear of public speaking or even discomfort, but that I need time after conversations to process and reflect on what I just heard. Back-to-back conversations make me feel (and appear) frazzled and distant because I’m working through so much in my head. Taking a few minutes after each conversation to collect my thoughts greatly improved my networking experiences. Identify your problem spot and attempt a new strategy to see if things get better.
Set Clear Intentions and Goals in Advance
All it takes is one genuine connection to change the direction of your professional life. Everyone has their own “best” approach to networking. Some people prefer to cast a wide net, meet dozens of strangers, and collect all the business cards, while others consider fewer in-depth conversations to be more meaningful. Before you attend a networking event, come up with a plan for what will make you feel accomplished afterward. If your main goal is to connect with others in your industry, set a realistic goal of how many people you promise to have conversations with before you leave; three to five is a good number to start with. If your goal is to meet specific people, read through the list of speakers or panelists online (which most events post) or contact the organizers and ask if they can share the list of attendees. Do your best to connect with those guests while you have the perfect in-person opportunity. Once you’re done, (as long as you haven’t rushed through them!) you have license to go home, curl up with a book, and unwind guilt-free.
If you enjoy networking events themselves but fall flat when it comes to staying in touch, set a calendar alert that’ll remind you to email or send a Linkedin message to anyone you met within a week — before the connections feel stale. Over time, seeing the tangible progress you’ve made towards your goals will be incredibly motivating and might even reframe how you feel about networking in general.
Take Self-Care Breaks
Even if you’re an extrovert, engaging with large groups of people can be exhausting. If you or your employer has paid for you to attend a networking event, you might feel a lot of pressure to “get your money’s worth” and utilize every minute of the experience. But it’s better to take a 10-to-20-minute break to recharge if you need it, rather than powering through for three hours if your energy is flagging. Taking a break ensures that you get to present your best self to the new connections you are making.
You might also want to consider your overall schedule when networking. When my extroverted friends plan social hangouts after professional events, I often find myself conserving energy for those plans rather than being in the moment. I’ve learned to be honest about my capacity to engage with people for hours in a given day — and decline invitations accordingly.
Consider Alternative Venues
If you’re intimidated at the idea of awkwardly shuffling around a venue full of chatty people, remember there isn’t a prescribed place or way you’re allowed to talk to people.
Speed networking is never going to be enjoyable for me — and that’s okay. If you prefer high-energy options with smaller time constraints, those might be perfect for you. Coffee chats are my preferred form of networking because I know I’m at my best when I don’t have to jockey for attention in large groups. The person you want to connect with doesn’t have time to meet for coffee? Schedule a brief phone call — making sure that you have specific things to talk about beforehand. (You don’t want to ramble or waste the other person’s time.)
Other networking alternatives you might consider are master classes, group dinners, and industry meetups focused around a specific activity. You can also use the Jopwell platform to view upcoming events as well as can your academic department newsletter for possible opportunities. Join active LinkedIn groups that regularly host meetups, and reach out to trusted friends for introductions to people they think you might click with. The latter is my favorite option: all the connection with less fuss.
Don’t Forget to Listen
Most introverts have a superpower that can give them a strong networking advantage: great listening skills. Whether it’s because we process for a longer period of time before responding, or because we don’t feel the need to immediately fill a silence, introverts tend to be good at letting others talk. Shy and reserved people often worry that their silence will come off as rude — but no one likes talking to a conversation hog. If I’m excited to speak to someone but don’t want to take center stage, I ask leading questions that gets the other person talking. I try to remember them based on the stories they share so that if we meet again, they’ll remember me as the person who made them feel heard. Listening is also essential to any follow up: You can continue building a relationship in the future if you actually remember what was discussed in the past.