Networking can be vital to professional success, and some take to it like fish to water. These are the extroverts, whose brains are wired to feel pleasure from social activities, and who thrive on the energy gained from interacting with others.
Then there are others who have an inherent aversion to it and avoid the various networking opportunities at the college and professional level. People on the introverted side of the personality spectrum find engaging in groups quite daunting. Forbes reports that one-third to one-half of the US population falls on the introvert side of the spectrum. They view networking as too demanding, and at worst, simply a nuisance.
However, networking should be viewed as an investment. Putting in time to create and maintain a network proves especially valuable while pursuing critical career decisions such as landing a job, and obtaining a recommendation or career advice. More hiring is done via referrals than any other avenue, and the benefits of developing meaningful relationships and being vocal about achievements and goals are daily expounded by career experts.
Introverts forsaking networking miss out on valuable opportunities and may be making a critical career mistake. Introversion is simply a preference for the rich inner world of ideas, rather than the overwhelming stimulation of social interactions and communication. By understanding, accepting and appreciating this preference, introverts can leverage their strengths to create a unique networking strategy.
The following tips can help an introvert create productive conversation, better business relationships and an effective personal network one step at a time.
Explore different activities
Networking does not have to mean attending a large ‘power networking’ event. There are many activities available on college campuses that double up as networking opportunities. Career services at most universities organize departmental ‘tea parties’; these can be a good starting point as you are surrounded by familiar faces of faculty members and classmates.
Use personal preference and attributes to choose activities and events for success. For example, for those at their best in a one-to-one interaction rather than a crowd, activities such as weekly ‘language coffee’ events might be a perfect fit. These are generally conducted at normal university cafes, and led by native speakers of different languages. The focus is on learning a new language in small groups. And it doesn’t matter if you mumble or stumble; everyone learning the new language is struggling alongside. Start by trying out new events, and eventually narrow these down to interesting events that you can attend regularly.
By preparing well for a networking event, the stress or apprehension associated with an event can be drastically reduced. The following basic pointers can aid your preparation:
- To make the most of networking opportunities, keep business cards handy and relevant documents ready at all times.
- Before events, demarcate adequate time in advance to get ready and arrive in a calm manner. If there are personal routines that alleviate stress, do not forego these. Routines serve the purpose of freeing up mental space and allowing cognitive tasks like talking to people without undue stress. It is important to feel comfortable, and this has a substantial impact on mood, and participation.
- Many people avoid speaking out for the fear of being judged. This is known as evaluation apprehension. Introverts would typically rather talk about ideas than themselves, so when at events, feel free to focus on subjects that are trending on social media, or any articles that may be conversation starters.
Try to reach out to event attendees beforehand if appropriate. Highlighting previous work, interests or sharing an interesting anecdote can help set context for the impending interaction. This can be done via email or social media, and is a valuable pre-introduction on personal terms, without the pressure of an in-person meeting. With a friendly greeting and by letting people know that you are looking forward to meeting them, you can feel more mentally prepared and in control for the event. This tactic also helps negate the apprehension that you will be surrounded by strangers and have no one to approach.
Set small goals
Start with a minimal goal. For example, aim to exchange business cards with five people at a networking event, or schedule attending just two mixers a month. This tangible objective will make the experience less overwhelming, and provide encouragement and incentives of solitude and relief on the other side of the goal. There is no need to spend a lot of time on it; limiting networking to such short and sweet bursts ensures that it does not immediately become repugnant.
Create a game plan
Tangible objectives should be backed by a game plan. Within the networking event, target specific individuals of importance, and prepare possible topics of conversation or questions accordingly.
- Striking a conversation
For a larger setting, mastering a sophisticated entrance can ensure never having to awkwardly hang around groups that are deep in conversation. Use a polite interruption and brief greeting, and ask to participate as a listener. By encouraging the person to continue speaking, you will soon be up to speed with the conversation and better poised to participate and offer an opinion.
- Exiting a conversation
Rather than wait for a conversation to tether off in small talk or run out of steam, depart with a specific ask such as exchanging business cards or requesting a follow-up interaction. This could be getting in touch via email to continue the conversation.
Pay attention to detail
Introverts can leverage their excellent listening skills and allow the other person to talk and lead the conversation. By using open-ended questions such as ‘How do you find working with __ company?’ instead of event-specific topics, the conversation can be steered towards a long-term professional association rather than small talk. This also helps exhibit attentiveness and interest.
An introvert is more observant and focused than an extrovert, so channel these abilities to capture useful little details to facilitate a potential connection. Making a note of these after you meet people, can provide useful conversation starters for later interactions.
The essence of successful communication comes down to initiative. Invite people for lunch, or coffee or a beer after work.
Develop relationships of value
Utilize the time designated for networking wisely. The end goal is to build meaningful connections through short interactions of substance. There is no value in networking for the sake of networking. Instead of trying to make twenty new connections, take a strategic approach and target the key nodes in a network. This means building a relationship with only ten people, but ten people who are well-connected and in touch with lots of other people. Invest time in a few key groups rather than many groups for a short while, and exercise patience as it takes a long time to build these connections.
Don’t over-exert by attending a networking event and then going out for drinks just because it is the ‘done’ thing. Allow yourself permission to say no, because it is better to be assertive than taking the risk of coming across as less reliable when you cancel after agreeing to attend. Remember to schedule time off and indulge in routines that help you recharge. There is little point in doing too many things if none of them will be done well. It is important to be well-rested and calm to attend to each endeavor effectively. For some people this may entail absolutely no human contact over the weekend, while for others it may mean a restorative, brisk walk alone after interacting with people for a few hours. Above all, it is important to withdraw to the environment that provides comfort, and allow yourself to increase mental and physical stamina at your own pace.
Iterate and persevere
Introverts are intuitive, reflective and analytical. Leverage these strengths to create and continuously refine a customized strategy to achieve maximum career momentum from networking. Remember that practice makes perfect, and that each interaction becomes easier and more effortless with time.
Not being the most comfortable person in the room is no reason to pass up opportunities. Channel energies into building valuable personal relationships and don’t let fear hold you hostage.