AN INTROVERT’S GUIDE TO NETWORKING
Extroverts have it easy. Bounding around, joining the conversation with ease, getting to know people, making connections. They love networking. They live for it and being good at it is fantastic for business. After all, being seen is the first step to being heard and being heard is the first step to being remembered.
But what about the rest of us? The wallflowers, shrinking violets and ‘shy’ and retiring types? Depending on which study you read, introverts make up at anywhere from 26 - 33 percent of the population and they have a whole other range of skills that make them valuable business assets. But how can they master the dreaded world of networking whilst still being true to their inner self?
Facing crowds of new faces can be tough for introverted people, so we spoke to a selection of social psychologists to create an original 10-step guide to networking, for people who naturally loathe it.
EMBRACE YOUR INTROVERSION
Most networking guides for introverts tend to start off by telling you not to be introverted. ‘Get out there’ they say, ‘be assertive’ or the more menacing-sounding ‘sell yourself!’. Firstly, telling an introverted person to not be introverted is A) Asking the impossible, B) Not necessary and C) A huge mistake.
The introvert/extrovert divide is one of the most fundamental dimensions of personality. Without introverts, the world wouldn’t have the theory of relativity, Harry Potter, Microsoft or the music of Chopin. So, the first step for introverted people to master networking is see their introversion as the asset it really is.
UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE
In very basic terms, introverts are energised by being alone, while extroverts are energised by being with others. Extroverts are more gregarious and strident in their efforts to seek out external rewards, like money, social status, recognition and food. Introverts, on the other hand, have a preference for seeking out information rather than rewards, reflecting on it and quietly contemplating.
To put it in its most simple terms, introverts are thinkers, while extroverts are doers. To top it off, introverts often prefer less stimulating surrounding and become drained by the presence of others, finding social interactions or large groups to be exhausting. This may read like introverts are predisposed to detest networking and that case could certainly be made, but the virtues of being introverted easily outweigh the pitfalls.
PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
You might think that introverts don’t like people but they do. They just like them on their own terms and not all the time. These terms can differ, as the introvert/extrovert dynamic is a scale, rather than an absolute, but one-to-one interactions, with closer friends, for less prolonged periods of time are usually preferred by introverts and being the centre of attention usually isn’t.
Introverts aren’t ‘showy’ or attention seeking and they care little for small talk, but they do have a substantial arsenal of other tools up their sleeve, which can all help, when it comes to networking.
Social psychologists generally regard introverts to be good listeners, self-sufficient, highly conscientious, more empathetic, easy-going and thought-provoking, (once you get them talking). Networking may not naturally be their strong point, but they have plenty of other attributes to bring to the party.
STRATEGISE FOR SUCCESS
Now that we’ve got some of the background out the way, let’s get down to some practical advice. Given introvert’s propensity for thinking, let’s think ahead. Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, explains part of the problem:
Introverts internal volume is turned up a bit higher than average and they’re more sensitive to social stimulation, bright light and ambient noise. That’s why they tend to congregate on the outside of social gatherings. They’re trying to minimise the excessive amount of stimulation.
How can an introvert reduce the noise, stimulus and number of social interactions that come with networking? Well, the safest bet is to show up early.
This gives introverts the chance to talk to people one-on-one first and benefit from gradual exposure. It also provides them with the security of knowing a few other faces beforehand, which is a lot easier for introverts than diving head first into a room full of 200 strangers.
HIDE BEHIND THE SCREEN
Not literally, of course, but through social media prior to the event. LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook can all help you to strike up a rapport online with event organisers or people who are attending days before the networking begins.
You can read Facebook comments or follow Twitter hashtags to get a sense of who’s going to be there and who you might like to talk to, effectively breaking the ice before the doors open, without breaking a cold sweat. This pre-introduction should lead to a more relaxed and productive in-person connection.
KNOW YOUR GOALS & SET SOME TARGETS
To get the most out of networking, you need to first understand your overarching goal. Ask yourself why you’re attending the event. It could be to hear from a speaker, meet a specific client or (God forbid) actually network.
If it is indeed to network, you should set yourself some achievable, scalable targets. Challenge yourself to collect or give out five business cards or talk to ten people and reward yourself with something you like if you do. Quality ‘me time’ sounds right up your street.
MENTAL CUE CARDS & SUPPORTIVE FREINDS
An enduring misconception is that introverts are poor conversationalists. The art of good conversation starts with listening and introverts are great at that. The world is full of people who love to talk about themselves, so, when it comes to networking, let them do the heavy lifting.
Small talk usually isn’t an introverted person’s thing but deeper thinking is. Dr. Rob Yeung, psychologist and author of How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed, suggests preparing a handful of open-ended questions that you can ask pretty much anyone you meet; What attracted you to your job? How did you get your start in your career? What are you hoping to get from this event?
Networking becomes a whole lot less daunting if you have someone supportive with you, effectively taking the stress out of worrying about looking like you’re unsociable and not talking the opportunity to talk to new people. But be careful to still appear ‘ready to mingle’. Think about your body language, smile and try to appear to be open and interested in striking up new conversations.
So, you’ve done all your preparation. You’re now at your networking event and it’s time to let go of that friendly looking pot plant and actually speak to people. This is where your introverted skill set can help.
Introverts can use their composure to create a sense of gravitas and presence, says work psychologist Liza Walter Nelson:
Introverts generally have a depth of interests which means they are often full of facts and knowledge. This can absolutely be turned into an advantage.
Another advantage is an introvert's ability to read people well, a skill that can be employed to ‘read the room’. Who seems open to talking? Who else is on their own? Who looks approachable? Who’s giving off positive vibes?
KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING
People who are bad at conversation fail to talk. The rule here is to either support the existing topic or offer up a new one. Effective networking is all about finding commonalities and the key to good conversation is building on what the other person is saying.
Entering close-knit circles and joining an existing conversation can be tough, but Dr. Carducci has some smart advice, which he calls the ‘wait and hover’ technique:
Approach your new group but stay on the periphery, listening, observing or nodding your head. Get the group used to you being there, then once you have the gist of the conversation, make a comment of support, something like, “That’s a great idea” and then provide additional details similar to the statement you’re agreeing with.
GET OUT OF THERE - WITH GRACE
For introverts, saying your goodbyes can be loaded with potential for awkwardness. What you really need is an exit strategy and here’s a fool-proof one. The best way to end a conversation follows a set pattern:
1) Let the person know that you have to move on or duck out.
2) Thank them and highlight something that they said that was useful
3) Create an opportunity for future contact.
This might read as a bit robotic, but in person, it could sound something like this:
Well, I’d better circulate, but thanks for chatting. It was great to hear your thoughts. Here’s my card.
TO WRAP THINGS UP
It’s not easy being an introvert, especially in a western culture which more readily rates outgoing, animated types. But it’s important to remember that there’s no proven correlation between good ideas and gabby people.
Don’t listen to the cries of ‘speak-up’ ‘come out your shell’ and ‘stop being shy’. Ignore the ‘loner’ labels and antisocial accusations. Introverts contribute in different, but effective ways, which should be prized just as much in the workplace.
Networking can be excruciating for some, but when introverted people use their innate skills to their advantage, they can become even better networkers than all the louder extroverts in the room.