I hate networking. I’m a shy introvert with social anxiety… which means all the typical networking stuff like small talk and starting a conversation with a human I don’t know is as comfortable for me as laying on a bed of rusty nails while an angry squirrel jumps on me would be.
Since it has obvious benefits, and has always been a part of my job, I used to suck it up and do it. But then I realized: being a quiet networker is a superpower. In this post, I'll break down each phase of networking and how to be an effective quiet networker.
One of the most powerful strategies starts days or even week before you arrive at the event. Most conferences have an app, and those apps often have some way of communicating with other attendees. For example, I recently attended the Women in Tech Summit and they’re used Whova. This let me scroll through to see who’s going, and even begin having conversations with people before I’m there - which soothes my introvert soul.
What should you look for while you scroll? Two things: scan for familiar names (obviously), and to see if there’s someone you want to meet. Is there someone who works at a company you're interested in, someone who does something similar to what you do, or just have something in common.
From there, do a light stalking. Not creepy deep stalking their Instagram timeline going 10 years back, but lurk their LinkedIn profile or whatever sites they have linked. You can even send connection requests with notes because the more people you pre-meet the easier it is when you're there.
Obviously, you can’t meet everyone before the event - and have you ever been at a networking event and your brain seemed to erase all knowledge on how to start a conversation - or is it just me?
I prepare for this and script a few questions. These can be mundane or they can be more fun - I suggest you try to fit the vibe of what’s happening. For conferences, you can keep it topical with questions like:
What t brought you here?
What sessions are you looking forward to?
Have you had any big eureka moments yet?
If you're attending a networking happy hour, or the networking event at a conference, you can also ask more conversational off topic questions. Personally, I love asking random questions that start a fun conversation. A few of my faves:
If you won a trip anywhere in the world, where would you choose to go?
What secret talent do you have?
What's one thing you think would make the world a better place?
The Day of the Event
Wear a conversation starter
This tip will make people walk up and talk to you, making things so much easier and way less stressful for you. Best of all: it’s something you’re going to have to do anyways, but doing it strategically is going to help you network.
When you go to a networking event, don’t just throw on any old thing. Find one thing you can wear that can start a conversation. It could be an statement top, bright blue shoes, or a cool pin; whatever you have that you love and is something people can comment on. One of the easiest ways to start a conversation with someone is to compliment them on something. Which means the easiest way for someone to start a conversation with you is for them to compliment you on something… so make their job easy!
Lately I've been wearing a so bright you can't miss me clothing item to events - like a cobalt blue dress or hot pink pants.
Set a goal
I do this before I go to any event, and this has been one of the biggest game changers for me - especially if I’m really not in a peopley mood when I head to the event.
I don’t try to talk to everyone in the room. I don’t even try to talk to half of them. Instead I set a realistic goal. A few years ago when I was dragging myself to an event I really didn’t want to go to, I did this for the first time. I set a goal of talking to at least 5 people. And not just business card swaps, my focus is on quality connections. I decided after I spoke to those 5 people that if i was miserable, I could leave if I wanted to. The goal got me into a groove, and once I was there, I actually had fun… so it’s something I do for every networking event now.
Most important - It’s weird for everyone
You're probably like me giving yourself a peptalk pre-event. Because my social anxiety, who I call Nancy, talks all sorts of smack: “No one wants to talk to you.” “Stop bothering people.” “You are making this so awkward”
It's estimated that more than half the population is introverted, more than 40% self-identify as shy, and about 15 million Americans have social anxiety. That means you are far from being the only one in the room who is going to be giving themselves a mental pep talk like me in order to talk to anyone.
Here’s the thing: regardless of if you are an introvert or extrovert, shy or outgoing, most people feel uncomfortable when it comes to networking.
Also remember people are probably much more concerned about how they’re coming across than how you’re coming across. Every person in that room is there to network. If they have no desire and no need to network, they would be at home living their best life watching Netflix and eating cupcakes. It doesn’t matter if you’re introverted or extroverted, shy or outgoing; no one wants to come across as that guy… you know the one who is there to self serve and not give an eff about everyone else vibe that gives the biggest ick.
During the event
During the event there are a few things I do that make it so much easier to start a conversation with something - and the first one is so basic you’re going to roll your eyes - but the thing is, most people do the exact opposite. Especially when you’re feeling shy or socially awkward because you’re standing alone at an event, what do you do?
You grab your phone and bury yourself in it.
Because then it looks like you’re not talking to anyone because you’re so busy. But guess what? No one is going to try to attempt networking with someone who looks busy. So make sure you put your phone away, make eye contact and smile. At the same point, if you see someone busy on their phone they might just be a fellow overwhelmed introvert so maybe say hello.
Find others who are solo
I use this strategy the most at event, and I find it easiest because it helps you play to one of your strengths as an introvert: look for others at the networking event who are also solo. They'll be relieved when someone comes up and talks to them (I know I always am). This also puts you in a 1:1 conversation, which is where us introverts really thrive.
Work with the extroverts
When someone approaches you, it’s probably someone who’s more outgoing, who is working the room, and who has met most of the people there. These are my favorite people to meet at networking events. First, because I admire them as I just mentioned, but also because they often become connectors. When you meet someone at a networking event who knows everyone or has introduced themselves to a ton of people - people start coming up to them. Then they introduce you and you meet new people organically without it being weird. If you have a particular goal, like you’re trying to learn more about a specific topic at a conference, you can also ask anyone you meet if they’ve met anyone with expertise in the area and ask for an introduction.
Have the right vibe
The biggest mistake I used to make at networking events guaranteed that no one would want to talk to me… and the conversations I did have would end up being with people no one else would talk to. My problem was my vibe. Let me explain...
I knew I wasn’t good at small talk, and because of that I didn’t think anyone would want to talk to me. Who wants to chitchat with the socially awkward chick, right? But since I thought no one wanted to talk to me - no one wanted to talk to me.
The thing is, as an introvert most people do want to talk to us for a simple reason: we don’t want to talk, we prefer to listen. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve said almost nothing in a conversation, and had the other person go on to say how great I am to talk to, how interesting I am to talk to - not because of anything I had to say, but because I didn’t say much at all. To quote Fight Club, most people aren’t listening, they’re just waiting for their turn to speak… which is why I think our tendency to want to listen as introverts makes us excellent networkers. We get to know people, we learn about their goals, and we find deeper connections through listening that last longer than the event.
Speak at the event.
This one is advanced so I know it won’t be for everyone, but it is a tactic I use whenever I can. Not only make people approach me constantly at conferences, but also helps me attend for free - and maybe even get paid for going, and has landed me multiple job offers.
If you have expertise others can benefit from, apply to be a speaker. You get to share your knowledge on a topic you can’t shut up about, and then people will approach you to talk more about it - so you’re not stuck in small talk, you get to talk about something you have deep expertise in, so you’ll be comfortable talking about it. This is also great for building your personal brand. If you’re at the stage you’re interested in sharing your knowledge, start by identifying your UAQ and build topics and talks from there!
Recharge your battery
This is a non-negotiable for any introvert when networking. During a networking event, if you find your energy depleting, you might want to step a way for a few minutes to get time to yourself (now’s the time to look busy on your phone or to catch up on emails). Make sure to take time to yourself to recharge your social battery at the end of the day as well. That might be zoning out to Netflix, going for a run, or settling in with a good book. No matter what you choose to do, make sure it's something that helps you feel refreshed.
This last thing is where a lot of people mess up networking. Unless you are simply a connessieur of business cards, collecting them is not why you go to any event. You go to networking events to make connections and build relationships. This is where you as an introvert have a massive edge over almost any of the social butterflies you meet. While social butterflies win on the quantity of people they can meet, that doesn’t always translate into substance. This means when it comes to turning that meeting into a meaningful connection isn’t going to be as easy. But you, my introverted friend? You listened, you got to know them, you learned about what they’re working on or trying to accomplish. So it’s not only easy, it’s natural for you to stay in touch. This is something I intentionally do post-event because it feels like a flow from the conversation we just had. On my trip back, or the following day, I take time to send a message to everyone I met and connected with. It’s nothing complex, I just let them know it was wonderful to meet them and note I what I enjoyed learning about them. That way we have an open string to continue communications - and hoepfully find ways to support each other, because that’s the whole point of networking!