Ask most people what an introvert is, and they’ll describe someone who’s shy, doesn’t like being around people, and is very quiet and aloof. Well, that’s not always accurate. Some introverts love social gatherings and can be very talkative. However, they tend to find the experience draining and need alone time to get their energy back.
Knowing that, networking can be a daunting and overwhelming experience for most introverts. So, whether you are shy in social situations, or just find the whole experience exhausting, here’s what you can do to make networking a success. (See also: The 10 Best High Paying Jobs for Introverts)
1. Know before you go
Anyone who is shy, or has social anxiety, will find the unknown to be the most daunting part of the networking experience. Who’s going to be there? What’s the place like? Will there be music? Will I have to interact with a lot of people, or play those networking games?
Much of this anxiety can be reduced by researching the event before you step foot in the building. Send emails to the organizers and ask about the setup. If they have held this meeting before, see if you can find pictures and videos of it online. These days, it’s easy to find a record of any kind of event like this thanks to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you do your research, you can dull that anxiety down to just some mild jitters. And once you’re there, you’ll be much more at ease.
2. Consider volunteering at the event
This may seem like the worst kind of advice for an introvert, but as I’m one myself, I can tell you it really works. If you volunteer to actually do something at the event — be it handing out name badges, taking coats, or helping serve food — having something specific to do stops that horrible feeling of being forced to interact with people without having a good reason.
“I can’t just go up and talk to that person” becomes “I’ll see if that person wants another drink, and maybe we can have a quick chat as well.” Plus, if you have a job to do, it’s very easy to escape the conversation you’re having if it’s all getting to be too much. Personally speaking, I was dreading going to San Diego Comic Con to network for my company; then they asked me to staff the booth. I was so busy handing out goodies and answering easy questions that I forgot I was networking at the same time. (See also: 9 Unexpected Benefits of Volunteering)
3. Have a prepared opener for introductions
Another way to make the event go smoothly is to know what you’re going to say to people before you get face to face. The most important thing to remember with an introduction is that you are not trying to cram everything into a few opening sentences. You simply want an easy way to start the conversation without coming across as either pushy or “used car salesman.” Go for something easy to remember, and universal.
Phrases like, “So, what brings you here today?” or, “How often do you come to these networking events?” are good because they’re open-ended questions (asking a question with a yes or no answer can be a conversation killer) and they also put the focus on the other person. Let them talk about themselves for a while. Of course, if you’re asked the same kind of question, be prepared with a brief sales pitch.
4. Practice your sales pitch
You’ve been asked the question you were going to ask: “So, what brings you here today?” The last thing you want to do is freeze like a deer in the headlights, or stumble over something that leaves a tepid first impression. You need something short and snappy that gets across who you are, what you do, and most importantly, why you do it.
It should not feel over-rehearsed and robotic. It should not be full of industry jargon, or go on and on about aspects of your industry that only the most die-hard professionals will love. Go for a 20 to 30 second explanation, checking off the most important and memorable aspects of you and your business. Give the other person some meaty facts that they can respond to. Then, practice this with friends and co-workers. Practice a lot. You will want this to feel natural. (See also: 5 Reasons Everybody Needs an Elevator Pitch — Even You!)
5. Bring some moral support
Often the reason networking events can be so off-putting is knowing that you will have to spend hours talking to strangers. You can almost eliminate that part of the challenge by bringing along a friend, relative, or co-worker you trust, and most importantly, with whom you have a great relationship. They will be your emotional crutch for the event, as long as you tell them beforehand that you’re relying on them for that. You don’t want them wandering off after 10 minutes while you’re stuck in a crowd.
Your partner in crime can be there to help you field difficult questions, and if they’re more of a people person, they can even introduce you and do some bragging on your behalf. Talking about yourself like you’re awesome can sound egotistic. But when someone else does it, you’re a star.
6. A few conversation-starter props can help
If you’re one of those people that has trouble keeping the conversation going, why not bring a few props that you can bring out when you start having trouble? A fun business card is perhaps the easiest and most convenient one to bring along. I, myself, have used cards printed on wood, cards that expand to 10 times their original size, and even one that had a joke embedded in a sound chip.
7. Arrange small one-on-one meetings
If you are not good in crowds, avoid them. Sure, there are plenty of big events and meetings around, but you can also arrange to meet people one-on-one for coffee or lunch. Seek out people you want to meet with in online forums and through LinkedIn, which has become one of the best ways for anyone to find and engage with new contacts. Get the conversation started online, then ask to take it into the real world with a meeting. This is also great for easing tensions because you already know a little about each other, and know that you are both interested in talking further. (See also: 7 Social Situations All Introverts Fear)
8. Avoid meeting in person altogether
If all else fails to work for you, you can avoid in-person meetings completely. This isn’t ideal — you eventually need to get your face out there and shake hands with people that can help your career. But if you just can’t do that right now, use technology to help you out.
There are instant messengers and emails. You can also try a few webinars that allow you to chime in without actually being in the room. You can use Skype and video conferencing to connect with people in your city, or halfway around the world. And guess what? Your smartphone actually allows you to call someone. To be fair, I hate talking on the phone these days as much as everyone else — however, if it saves you from an in-person meeting, especially with a big crowd, it’s definitely the lesser of two evils.