I once attended a networking event entering a room with 300 strangers. I was introduced to a woman who was sharp, outgoing, and engaging. She asked insightful, smart questions. I had her pegged: a power networker. She was clearly in her element and very comfortable connecting with strangers.
But as our conversation continued, I came to learn that she wasn’t an extrovert or a natural networker at all. To the contrary, she was a self-described introvert who had trained herself to become a great connector. She actually recalled exiting her first professional networking event in tears, and avoiding similar situations for years to follow.
She explained to me how, eventually, she realized strong communication and networking skills were important. So, she made a plan to improve. She invested in professional training and with improved confidence, created systems and structure that transformed her communication skills and personal perspective on networking.
While I wouldn’t call myself an introvert, I can relate to her story. I am in the situation often enough, yet making small talk with strangers never comes naturally to me. I often find myself decidedly outside my comfort zone in rooms full of new people. So, over the years, I’ve come up with my own playbook to become more successful in uncomfortable networking situations.
Networking is hard work for me, but I don’t want that to be obvious to everyone in the room. Having a plan — a system and structure to fall back on — is the first step to mitigating anxiety and improving your ability to make a meaningful connection with someone new.
Here are a few tips from my networking playbook.
If you’re not a natural extrovert, networking takes practice. Look for low-risk opportunities to engage with people. Get used to stepping out of your comfort zone and building connections. Networking doesn’t just mean turning on the switch at a conference or event. You can look for opportunities to practice and build connections every day. Getting in the habit is the first step to becoming a better connector.
Have a plan.
Before you jump into the conference social hour, map out your plan. What are three good questions you can ask a stranger? People love to talk about themselves, so brainstorming questions is a good way to open the door to conversations. It’s usually the anticipation of the experience, or the first few minutes, that are the most difficult. Having a plan can help push you through initial discomfort.
Setting specific networking goals can be a motivator. At your next event, set a goal. For example, “I will start conversations with five new people.” You’ll leave with at least one or two meaningful new connections, people you enjoyed talking to, or people you can help. It’s not about meeting the “important” people. Don’t get stuck looking for name tags with impressive titles. If that’s your strategy, you’ve already missed the opportunity. Everyone’s important.
Be a good listener.
Listening is underrated, and good listeners are hard to find. Networking isn’t about making a sales pitch. It’s about asking good questions and listening to what people have to say. Focus on the person you’re talking to, and you’ll find that a lot of the pressure goes away.
Don’t assume you’re the only one.
We often think we are the only one in the room who’s uncomfortable. It is easy to assume everyone else is an extrovert who’s happy and relaxed in a room full of new faces. But that’s just not the case. At your next networking event, remember that a lot of other people probably feel just like you do. Start a conversation, knowing that the person you’re talking to is probably thankful that you took the first step.
Get over your fear of rejection.
A common fear associated with networking is rejection. If that sounds familiar, download an app called Rejection Therapy. The app’s goal is to get you comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable by putting you in situations that are likely to induce a little rejection. After 30 days of rejection therapy, you realize rejection isn’t that big of a deal.
Following up with new connections is an art. You can make a big impression by stepping up your follow-up game. Here’s an example of a recent follow-up that impressed me: Last year, I spoke at the Best of Breed conference. In my talk, I mentioned a book and author that I really like. I’d never met the author before, but his book contributed to my thinking. Fast-forward a few months, and Best of Breed is hiring that author to speak because of my casual recommendation. One afternoon, I found a handwritten note and gift from the author in my mailbox. In his note, he thanked me for the referral and said he hoped we could meet in person sometime. Talk about building a connection. He didn’t just send a message on LinkedIn. He did something unforgettable. And, he made me challenge myself: Would I have done that? The experience has pushed me to work harder in my own follow-up. Lesson learned: Always look for ways to follow-up and make an impression.
Social media and online communication have made it easier for introverts to build connections before and after events. If you’re heading to an event alone, connect with one or two people online before the event. Make plans for one coffee meeting. Have someone to look for who you already “know.” Recognizing just one familiar face or name can get the ball rolling.
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