An Introvert’s Guide to Networking
‘Why are you so quiet?’ That’s what my wife often says when she organises a dinner party with a dozen people. Let’s get this out of the way; I am a fully paid-up member of the Introverts Club. I am the kind of guy that is exhausted after a day of meetings, needs time alone, and would much rather have a night out with a single friend, not ten.
So how did I get to love networking and thrive in a room full of strangers? And, more to the point, how can you do it too?
Why network anyway?
Well, if you are like me, you are a business owner or entrepreneur that needs to widen his or her network to find new business or partnership opportunities. Your business is ticking along nicely, but is, by and large, relying on referrals. You have tried marketing in so many different ways — blogging, social media, direct mail — but you are running out of options. Your approach has been throwing it at the wall to see what sticks. It’s a long game, but deep down in your heart of hearts, you know you have to start networking.
Your friends and colleagues have told you that networking is one of the quickest ways to become part of a community of like-minded people. It’s obvious when you think about it; this group of people all have a unifying reason to be in that room. (More on this later.)
Let’s step outside work for a moment. Ever joined a cycling club, or running club? Everyone loves their sport, and those shared passions make conversation so, so easy! It’s no different from wanting to move your business into another sector.
Feeling the fear
You know it all makes sense, but deep down you have this gut-wrenching fear of (raise hands to make rabbit ear quote marks) networking. You may even make excuses, and say that’s not for me. Or, even worse, you attend your first event with a colleague or business partner and do nothing but talk to each other.
Eventually, you step in to a room full of strangers and hide in the corner, speak to no one and leave feeling crestfallen and hate yourself. I’m not a wallflower. I can talk to people. Why is it so hard for me to strike up a conversation?
I can tell you, that was me. But — here’s the but — I can also tell you that all it takes is a shift in your mindset. This shift will allow you to not only strike up a conversation in a room full of strangers but also bring out the best in you. Yes, you are an introvert, and you have superpowers too, you know!
You could say I had a guide — a Yoda, of sorts. Well, two, in fact, but both helped me understand how to approach networking and actually enjoy it! And, if I can, I know you can too.
Yoda #1 was Dale Carnegie. Well, not him, his book: How To Win Friends and Influence People. And more specifically, chapter two: ‘Six Ways to Make People Like You’.
“You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you.”
The basic premise of this chapter is that if you can get people talking about themselves, they often walk away from a conversation thinking interesting guy (or girl). When, in actual fact, all you did was keep the conversation going. You didn’t talk incessantly about yourself. No, all you did was ask questions about their line of work, or life. And, because you listened, those questions came quickly. Believe me, as someone who has a black belt in introversion, listening is my one-inch punch.
Remember I referred to one of your superpowers above? This is one of them. Use this. Hell, practise it if you have to. In the words of Mr Carnegie “Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.”
Yoda #2 was Hilary Gallo, author of Fear Hack, in a workshop on natural networking. I won’t divulge the entire seminar, as it is his workshop — not mine — but I took away two valuable lessons. These are simple lessons, which anyone can adopt, introvert or not.
Don’t expect to make a sale
The first lesson is simple: do not expect to make a sale in your first networking event. In fact, do not expect to make a sale at all. This is all about widening your network — and dare I say it? — making friends. No one proposes marriage on their first date. (Well, if you did — how did that go?) Equally, don’t try to sell on the first ‘date’ when you network. People will just think you are pushy.
To borrow from Adam Grant, this is all about giving. While you might not be able to help someone install an enterprise cloud solution for their business, you might know just the person, and you can make the introductions. One day — maybe — that favour may be reciprocated.
The first question
The second lesson was equally simple: it’s all about the first question. That is literally it! Once you are past that, you are off!
My favourite question? ‘Is this your first time?’ Regardless of the answer, you can move on. (Yes? Oh, well, you are in for a treat. But tell me; what piqued your interest? No? We must keep missing each other. How long have you been attending?)
If you see someone moving around the room looking a little lost and lonely, walk up to them, say hi and ask that very question. It’s so easy to assume that everyone in the room is totally at home in a place full of strangers. They are not. Repeat: they are not. Everyone feels the same way you do — shy and unsure who to talk to — so bring people into your circle of conversation. They will thank you later.
Keep showing up
This is an important one. Remember my first event? I left hating myself for I made precisely zero connections. It’s so easy to give up at this point.
Please don’t (unless it was a total waste of time and as exciting as filing your tax return.) This is why you pick a subject you are interested in and can talk about. But, more importantly, showing up each time there is an event means you become a familiar face and you recognise familiar faces amongst the room. It just takes one connection and the next time you go along you say hi and someone else moves into your circle as you get them to introduce you to others. It’s like compound interest, that builds on its own success.
For me, this is the most crucial step to mastering the room full of strangers. Yes, my Yodas helped me broach that awkward first question. But, once you have an association with a group of individuals all sharing the same passion, your name may well crop up in conversation when someone in need of a specific skillset.
Crossing the threshold
So this is how I crossed the threshold and learned to love a room full of strangers. We’ve all seen the sign on the pub wall: a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. By re-framing networking, it will also leave you feeling less — shall we say? — soiled. This isn’t about making a sale. It is about how you can help each other. (Remember, we’re all in the same room for the same reason. Right?)
For sure, I have had conversations that have gone nowhere. I have also had conversations I have had to pull along with all my might. But that’s not the point. The point is I am an introvert, and I have conquered fear. Fear, by and large, that was created by my own mind. (Isn’t it always?!)
So go out, dear introvert and break the ice. Ask that first question, and make some new friends. Who knows, you might enjoy it. I did!