An Introvert's Guide to Networking
Sunday, November 6, 2011Tweet
I am not very comfortable talking to people I don't know. It's something I've been working on this year, but I will never be the kind of person who easily strikes up a conversation with the person next to me on an airplane or behind me in line. For this reason, the whole notion of "networking" has always caused me anxiety.
I've encountered many articles and podcasts trying to reassure people about networking by saying that it's just another word for meeting people. This doesn't help, because meeting people = scary for me still, unless I'm being introduced by someone I know. Just walking up to a stranger and introducing myself? Not an easy thing for me.
I attended a few conferences in college and in the first two years at the college where I work, and every time I stuck close to and talked with the other people I knew from my college.
Then came the 20SB conference and everything changed.
For one thing, I wasn't going with anyone I knew, so I didn't have anyone to hide behind. For another, I knew this was an opportunity to attract more blog readers, so I had an immediate and direct reason for meeting people, unlike the usual type of networking where you're just "making contacts" for your professional career. And finally, since I knew everyone there was going to be just like me (a blogger in their 20s), it made it seem less daunting than attending a conference full of "adults" who have years of experience in their fields.
If you're comfortable striking up a conversation with strangers, this post is probably not for you. But if you're like me and could use a step-by-step guide for meeting people at conferences and networking events, read on to see what I learned at the 20SB Summit and applied at a work conference I attended last week.
1. Get there early. If you arrive too late to the cocktail hour or breakfast, all the seats will have filled up and you can't do Step 2. You'll just end up standing around feeling awkward because you can't easily break into an existing group's conversation.
2. Look for an empty seat, preferably by a person sitting alone. I do best one-on-one, and it also eliminates the aforementioned awkwardness of interrupting a conversation in progress. I usually look for a woman by herself because I feel more awkward approaching a man.
3. Ask, "Do you mind if I sit here?" Or "Is this seat taken?" This requires the person to look at you and respond; there, you've started a conversation!
4. Introduce yourself. Do it now, immediately after sitting down, as it will become more awkward to work into conversation later. Most normal people will introduce themselves in return.
5. Lead in with small talk. You don't want to start interrogating them immediately, so keep the conversation going after introductions with something basic, like a comment about the food ("They've got a pretty nice spread here"), the weather ("I just made it in before the rain started"), the location ("What a beautiful building this is"), etc. Keep it positive; you may be talking to someone who helped plan the event!
6. Ask a question. I try to think of some basic ones ahead of time. At the 20SB Summit, it was "Tell me about your blog" or "So, what kinds of things do you blog about?" At professional conferences, it may be a question about the person's job or (in my case) about their campus. I find that once they've shared something about themselves, that can open up the opportunity to ask something like, "So then, what are you hoping to get out of this conference?" or "What made you decide to come to this event?"
Later on in the conference you can skip the small talk and lead in with questions like, "Are you enjoying the conference so far?" or "Which sessions have you attended? Have you gotten any good takeaways?" All of these are good ways to lead into finding something in common to discuss.
7. Share your card as appropriate. I don't give my business card to everyone I talk to; sometimes I have nothing in common with the person I'm chatting with and see no good opportunity to foist my business card on them. However, if they mention an interest in some work I've done, I might say, "Here, let me give you my card -- shoot me an e-mail and I'll send you the paper I'm talking about." Or if I've asked them to share something they're working on, I'll give them my card so they have my e-mail address. Usually they'll give me theirs in return, and while it's rude to write on someone's card in front of them, when we've parted ways I'll make a note on the back of what we discussed and whether I promised to send them anything.
There you go -- you've made a connection! You've successfully networked!
I've found that having this kind of prepared script makes it less daunting to approach people I don't know. The advantage to meeting people at things like conference and networking events is that everyone there is expecting to meet new people and isn't likely to be put off by someone sitting down and introducing themselves.
One other tip that has been valuable to me at conferences: Take a break when you need it. An introvert, by definition, is someone who gets tired from being around lots of people and recharged from being alone. Although I try to get to as many conference sessions as I can, if there's a time around early or mid-afternoon where I'm not really gung-ho about any of the sessions, I'll take a break to go back to my hotel room or find a quiet corner to breathe and maybe catch up on e-mails. It helps me reflect on and digest everything I've heard thus far, and it also prevents me from getting completely exhausted from being around crowds of people all day long. Then I'm ready to go back and meet more people at the last sessions and/or at dinner.
Finally, follow up. When you're back home, go through the business cards you gathered and send a short e-mail to each person. This is where your notes come in handy; even if they didn't ask for anything specific, this can be a good opportunity to say, for example, "I enjoyed speaking with you about the new field of data visualization. I've attached an example of how we've been using this on our campus to aid in the distribution of data." The idea is to frame it in a way that adds value to their work -- an example or research that they can use.
You may never hear back from them... but maybe two years down the road they'll say, "Hey, I met someone once who has experience doing this," find your e-mail, and contact you about serving as a consultant or filling a open position. That's the idea, anyway.
The ideal outcome of a networking connection is a mutually beneficial relationship in which you can learn from each other to make work easier for both of you. And it starts just by sitting down next to someone!
Have your own tips for networking if you're shy or introverted? Please share in comments!