I started this blog with the intention of learning more about the struggles small business owners face. I’m hoping I can put my research skills to good use to help solve those problems. However, I realize that’s going to require me to actually go out and meet with small business owners. And that means doing something I very much dislike: NETWORKING. Nothing makes an introvert more uncomfortable than being in a room full of people they don’t know and being expected to have conversations with them. Unfortunately, in the business world, you can only get so far in your own talents. Eventually, you need connections and friends to go places.
What I’ve also come to realize though, is that a LOT of people dislike networking. Perhaps over the course of my next couple blog posts, we can figure this out together. I don’t have the magical answers to turn you into a networking ninja, not yet anyway. But this is my plan to work on it and you can bet I’ll be sharing any tips I discover along the way.
Overcoming the fear of initiating that first conversation with a stranger is a daunting task. My inner cynic gets pretty loud whenever I’m in a networking situation.
- “Most of these people probably aren’t very interesting”
- “You don’t really need to talk to anyone today. Why don’t we just go home?”
- “Why are you forcing yourself to do this? If you don’t really enjoy it, why bother?”
- “How well can you really get to know someone by asking pointless pre-scripted questions like “What brings you here today?”
While conducting research for this blog post, I started to realize that is that even if my inner cynic is right and there are only one or two people in the crowd I’m likely to find interesting, I’ll never meet them if I don’t learn how to talk to people.
When I’m standing alone in a sea of people, it’s often a huge relief if someone actually approaches me and initiates the conversation (although sometimes it’s still just terrifying). In an attempt to learn how to be the initiator, I’ve sifted through countless “networking tips for introverts” articles. Some were helpful, others not so much. The following list is a few things I’ve come up with on my own, mixed in with some of the more helpful resources. It’s my hope that these networking techniques might actually work for me and some of you as well!
Open with a compliment.
I thought of this while at the last networking event I attended. Let’s be honest, I’m usually checking out people’s outfits at these things anyway. Why not actually compliment people in person rather than silently in my head?
I find compliments easy to give, but if I chicken out halfway through, just saying “wow, that’s a great dress!” and moving on is okay. On the flip side, opening with said compliment could easily segue into a conversation about the lecture or panel discussion we just heard.
Compliments make people feel good. If the person you’re complimenting also happens to be one of the many who dislikes networking, why not put them at ease by making them feel good about themselves?
Plan out potential conversation openers in advance.
One of the more common pieces of advice out there is that it’s okay to have a script and practice lines. While this sounded simple enough at first, I started to worry that it lacked authenticity. Small talk that has been scripted can easily seem disingenuous. The idea of reciting a predetermined set of lines at someone just doesn’t feel personable. However, I am also terrible at thinking up questions on the spot.
My compromise is that if I put my mind to it, it should be easy enough to come up with some potential conversations topics based on the event I’m going to. I’m not planning on writing out every sentence, but putting some thought into what I’d like to talk to people about seems like a good idea. And if a script or practicing lines is helpful for you, go for it. Everyone is at a networking event hoping to get similar things out of it so finding common ground based on that should be achievable.
Set realistic goals.
Andrea Barrica has a helpful blog post on networking tips based on a lot more experience than I have. One of her tips is to set goals. Goal-setting is key to most things in business and life. And while it’s great to have ambitious, visionary goals, you also need manageable steps plotted out to get there. Start small, and work your way up.
Since I’m really not good at this, I’m going to start by just trying to talk to at least one person at the next event I attend. Eventually, I’d like to get to three, but first I have to figure out how to approach one person. Baby steps guys, baby steps.
Make the conversation interesting.
As I said earlier, I hate conventional small talk, but that’s likely because I’m just not very good at it. If I focus on asking questions that I’m genuinely interested in the answers to, I may be able to shut that inner cynic off long enough to get somewhere. This one will take some work for those of us not gifted with the art of on-the-fly conversation, but you can’t improve if you don’t practice.
Think about a few topics outside of the standard “What do you do for work?” and “Did you enjoy the talk?” lines. Try to come up with a few intriguing topics that still relate to the event in some way but will keep you interested in a conversation long enough to make more meaningful connections.
Bring a support group.
I’ve gone to networking events before but I usually always go with a buddy. Mostly, that’s to ensure that I don’t have to talk to anyone that I don’t know. But when it comes to actually networking, having someone you can go back to ensures that you don’t have to be “on” all the time.
I can’t imagine going to one of these things completely solo. At least not yet anyway. I’m going to feel much more comfortable with a safety net of one or two people I can run to if I get overwhelmed and start overanalyzing things. It’s also good to have people around to hold yourself accountable to. It’s way too easy to chicken out when you’re on your own.
Employ active listening techniques.
This one doesn’t really come into play until after you’ve approached someone and started talking to them. I feel like 90% of the battle for us introverts is mustering up the courage to actually approach people so if you don’t get this far on the first try, that’s okay! On the off chance you or I actually do make it to this point, active listening is a pretty important part of ensuring that the conversations you do have are successful.
Imagine battling through all the stress and anxiety of trying to talk to someone new, just to have a ho-hum conversation that doesn’t go anywhere. I imagine that’s the kind of thing that would discourage me from wanting to keep trying.
Active listening is about being mindful and present. Introverts are blessed/cursed with wandering minds and it’s easy to get lost in our own trains of thought. To help you stay in the moment, some suggest repeating what the other person is saying in your head. You can also paraphrase what the speaker says and repeat it back to them to make it clear you’re listening. When active listening works, it helps others open up and builds trust, which is an essential piece of the networking puzzle.
Another important part of active listening is body language. If you’re not yet comfortable paraphrasing someone’s lines back to them, even just nodding or adding in a “mmhmm’’ now and then will help the person you’re talking to know that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say. Eye contact is important too. Using body language cues will help put the other person at ease and make for better conversation. If you’re interested in learning more about active listening, check out Forbes Ten Steps to Effective Listening or Relationship Up’s Five Active Listening Techniques to Become a Better Listener.
As it turns out, since we’re usually processing things quietly in our head, introverts tend to be naturally better at listening. We also put a lot of thought into the things we say when we do speak up. This article made me feel a lot better about this part of the whole networking thing. It turns out there’s at least one part of networking that we introverts actually have a head start on!
Make It Happen!
I’m planning on attempting to implement these six networking techniques at my next networking event. I actually already attempted a few of these last week, but that story will have to wait!) Stay tuned for part two of this post where I’ll be reporting back on how well these actually worked and sharing any other tips and tricks I discover. If you decide to try a few of these out, let me know how they work!
Wish me luck!