For introverts, the prospect of attending a networking event can feel like a trip to the dentist.
However, the reality is that if you’re an entrepreneur, networking is an essential.
The fear of networking is something I personally understand—I am a self-professed introvert and networking avoider. However, with the recent focus on introversion in the workplace, increased attention is being paid to optimizing introverts’ workplace success.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the ways introversion impacts us while networking, and how to work around it. The reality is that networking doesn’t have to be painful; for us introverts, it’s just necessary to approach it differently.
What does introversion look like?
Introversion is characterized, not necessarily by a shy or receding personality, but rather by individuals who feel recharged by alone time, and drained by extensive, ongoing social interaction.
I myself first felt keenly aware of my introverted nature when I realized I needed time to recharge not only after exhausting or stressful social situations, but even after ones I enjoyed. This means that I can spend the whole day with people whose company I genuinely love, but by the end of the day, I still feel a little burnt out.
Have you ever experienced that feeling of exhaustion at the end of the day that comes from continued meetings, social engagements, and small talk—even if you’ve been spending time with people you enjoy being around?
Congratulations—you might be an introvert. We are many.
Introversion and networking
In terms of networking, introversion can present a problem. While introversion is in no way inherently tied to social ineptitude (excuse you), it is true that most introverts feel less at ease making connections with strangers. We’re more comfortable with a group of close acquaintances, and do better in smaller groups or one-on-one conversation.
Furthermore, as introverts, the process of networking can feel awkward, unnatural, and potentially exhausting.
When we think of networking, we often think of large, structured networking events; you’re probably worried you’ll end up awash in a sea of name tags, unfamiliar faces, and pained small talk.
This is where problems arise; introverts, so put off by the prospect of these types of events, might falsely assume that this is the only context in which networking occurs, and shy away from the idea completely.
Defining your networking goals
Part of the fear of networking comes from the fact that the idea of networking itself can feel like a huge, nebulous concept.
Networking, in reality, is pretty all-encompassing. Plus, networking means different things to different people.
Some people are always trying to grow their network; when it comes to networking, they subscribe to the “maybe I’ll need it later” school of thought, and keep everyone they meet in their back pocket for later use. Others are task-oriented networkers; they network for a specific purpose—to find a job, to make a connection in an industry, to secure a certain contact, and so on.
Neither style is wrong, but these two hypothetical networking types serve different needs. The issue is approaching all networking as equal, without defining exactly what your goals are.
What do you hope to achieve from networking? Before you proceed, you should really answer this question.
Is your goal to break into a certain niche of your industry, find a mentor, or snag a specific type of client? Your strategy should be focused around achieving those specific goals. Is your goal simply to meet more people in your field, or make new contacts that could potentially turn into business connections later on? This less-structured goal will, similarly, require a different strategy.
I can’t break down exactly how to create the perfect networking strategy—and that’s the point. There isn’t one ideal strategy, as your goals should be what determines how you proceed. I can, however, lay out tactics, from one introvert to another, that can help direct your strategy to align with your own personal networking goals.
5 networking tactics for introverts
1. Ask for a set up
You know the overbearing movie mom who’s always trying to set up her still-single child on a date? (Or, maybe that’s your mom—hey, I’m sure she’s right, you’re clearly a catch.)
Applying a similar set up strategy can be a more organic means of forging connections. Turn to your Facebook feed, existing client base, industry friends, or other professional and social circles, and ask if they know anyone who fits the bill you’re looking for.
This introduction via an intermediary has multiple functions. First, it automatically puts the relationship on a more comfortable playing field; you’ve both essentially been vetted by a mutual acquaintance, so it’s a little less like shooting in the dark. Secondly, you now have the opportunity to have an exclusive one-on-one interaction with this person—an introvert’s dream come true.
Say, for example, that you’re interested in finding a mentor to help you grow a specific aspect of your business. This doesn’t need to necessarily be someone whose experience lines up one hundred percent with yours, so you could cast a wide net, asking everyone you feel comfortable asking if they might know anyone and could make an introduction. Then, invite them out to coffee.
If you’d like to read a step-by-step account of how to make the “networking setup” work for you, check out this guide by Matt Bilotti on Hubspot, where he illustrates how he uses the idea of “second-degree connections” to maximize his networking opportunities.
Assuming a polite, friendly approach, you’ll likely be met with a positive response. People always love talking about themselves and their success, and they’ll be flattered that you sought them out. Worst case scenario? They aren’t a good fit for your needs, and you’ve had a nice cup of coffee—infinitely better than the awkward dates your mom keeps forcing you to go on.
2. Participate in a variety of events—including ones that aren’t networking events
Networking events don’t have to be billed as networking events.
Sure, with a formal “networking event,” the objective is clear; however, this can make the process more intimidating.
By viewing all events that you attend as networking events, you open up your opportunities substantially. Neil Patel advocates for conceptualizing networking as a lifestyle, and not separating your personal and professional life.
For example, consider your hobbies.
Maybe you’re an avid runner; consider joining a weekly running club. Or, perhaps you’re interested in learning a new language—there are Meetup groups to help you practice. The same goes for any number of hobbies, from hiking to wine tasting.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: “Sure, fine, but those are just hobbies. What does that have to do with networking?”
Well, the reality is that any of these events have the potential to become networking events. While the main goal may not be to make a work connection, you’re still likely to meet a diverse group of individuals with varied work backgrounds, some of whom may prove to be a valuable connection, whether in your specific industry or outside it.
In her article “Book Club Networking: How Your Social Life Can Get You a Promotion,” Jenny Kriha discusses the ways that using her social activities as networking opportunities has helped open doors for her that she wouldn’t have had access to had she viewed these events as purely social functions.
“Having an organized social activity outside of work has been such a great way for me to create a network of professionals I trust, who just happen to be some of my closest friends,” she says.
3. Bring a friend or an acquaintance from your field
Awkwardness is best diffused by having company.
Having a “buffer” person with whom you’re comfortable can make it easier to insert yourself into unfamiliar groups and make conversation.
I’ve used this tactic myself: I made plans to meet up with an acquaintance at a “ladies night” networking event put on by a local marketing agency, with a focus on women in writing, marketing, SEO, social media, and graphic design. As we were both in content marketing, it was a perfect fit, and meeting each other at the event made the entire experience much more comfortable.
It worked out wonderfully; as a unit, it was easier to approach groups and chat. Similarly, we looked more approachable together than either of us would have if we spent the evening awkwardly standing around alone.
Though recruiting a friend from your field might make this process easier, you can always employ this strategy with a friend from your general social circle as well. The idea of “tag-teaming” a networking event can help you feel more comfortable going into a scenario that you might feel uncomfortable with on your own.
At worst, it’ll give you someone who can save you from an awkward interaction—and you can grab a drink afterward and laugh about it.
4. Don’t think it has to be in person
When we think of networking, we typically think of networking events, like the one I mentioned attending above.
However, depending on your industry, plenty of your networking can be done without ever meeting in person. For us introverted folks, using social media to network can lessen the pressure immensely.
There are multiple ways to use social media to your networking advantage, and they can be broadly broken down into two categories: building a larger circle, and asking for work.
The former might involve building an Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr presence around your business, and finding others in your field to follow and interact with. Become part of the conversation, message people individually, and build connections.
The latter involves more of a direct approach (and will often stem from your built-up circle that you’ve already developed). Make a point to deliberately seek out others in your industry, and contact them directly to see if they can make a connection for you, introduce you to a contact, or otherwise help you out.
This might be feeling a little vague, so I’ll use myself as an example again:
Being a writer, I make an effort to follow other writers on Twitter—specifically freelance writers or writers who focus on entrepreneurship, small businesses, startups, and so on. I also follow a variety of publications that publish work similar to my own. I make an effort to both interact with other writers and join in the general conversation.
Similarly, if I was looking for a new freelance writing gig in a certain niche, I would first check to see if my Twitter “social circle” contained anyone relevant, and send them an email asking if they could point me in the right direction. For a more detailed overview by platform of how to directly make connections, this great guide by Social Media Examiner should be next up on your reading list.
Social media often gets a bad reputation as being frivolous, and it certainly can be. But, for an introvert looking for low-stress networking opportunities, it’s hard to do better.
5. If you do attend a large event, remember your goal
Let’s circle back around to your networking goal—what was it again?
Bigger, structured networking events can be overwhelming to introverts; if you’re anything like myself, you do best in a small group conversation or one-on-one.
So, maintaining a clear sense of your networking goal is essential. Are you looking to make a very specific type of networking connection? Don’t get sucked into a draining, lengthy conversation with someone who cannot help you meet that goal.
This might mean that some of your interactions feel fairly transactional. That’s okay! As the ultimate goal of a structured networking event is, in fact, to network, it’s acceptable to move on from a conversation that you don’t think will meet your needs.
While the reality is that networking may always feel outside of your comfort zone, developing a strategy to make it work for you can make the process feel not only bearable, but even enjoyable.
Which strategies work best for you? I’d love to hear your feedback. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts, and any tips I haven’t mentioned.