Written by Dustin Manley
The notion that one must be an extravert to successfully network is—pardon my French—connerie. Networking—like mathematics, writing, and athletics--is a skill, and while introverts may encounter a steeper learning curve, the best way to improve is through practice.
This was my message to a group of young professionals at a recent professional development event hosted by CPRS Hamilton. Networking may be a daunting task at the beginning, but I encouraged participants to think of it like medicine that tastes bitter to begin with but makes you better. To assuage the audience that anyone can become a successful networker, I let them in on the secret that I--the public relations professional currently engaging with 50 people—am an introvert myself!
To be clear: introversion and extraversion are personality preferences, not disorders. Unfortunately, the misconception of introversion has a chilling effect which may lead to learned helplessness in people of all ages and professional backgrounds. The myth that introverts are unable to engage or network with people is as unfounded and detrimental as concept of left-brain vs. right-brain thinking, which has encouraged many people who struggling at subjects like math to capitulate on the subject instead of working harder to improve their skills, because they believe there is nothing they can do to change their abilities.
The best way to get more comfortable and proficient at networking is to step out of your comfort zone. As an introvert I may prefer to have coffee with a single colleague than navigate a room full of new people; however, if I stay with my personal preference I would be doing myself a discourtesy by missing an opportunity to improve my professional networking skills and growing my business.
If you’re just beginning to network, or need a refresher, follow these tips to make the experience more enjoyable and rewarding:
Take a utilitarian approach
Approach each networking event with a clearly defined goal. Whether you plan to connect with a specific individual or establish the beginnings of a new business relationship, setting a goal is an excellent way to keep you focused and on track.
Dress for the event you’re attending. Jeans and a polo/blouse may be appropriate for a tech event, but not for an awards ceremony. If the dress code is not on the event website or invitation, reach out to the organizers through email.
Beware of pairs
Only approach people standing alone or in groups of three or more. Pairs are likely to be discussing things of a personal or private nature, and may not be receptive to an interruption.
Be an active listener
There are many ways to break the ice and engage someone in conversation. You may introduce yourself and give a 15-second elevator pitch about what you do, or you may bring up a relevant topic relating to the theme of the event. However, once you’re engaged in a conversation, don’t dominate it. Listen with the goal of understanding, not responding.
Stay away from politics
Never reveal your political views unless you are at a political event. Politics is a sensitive subject and even casually mentioning your leanings may cause people to dismiss or avoid you. This also goes for office and personal politics; don’t say anything negative about any organization or person.
Make sure people are aware of your presence. The more people see of you, the more likely you are to come top of mind when they, or their colleagues, need a professional service.
An acquaintance of mine who hates networking told me his secret to making the most of being seen. As a senior officer in a large organization he attend dozens of networking events per year. After spending 15 minutes mingling with the crowd he approaches the most important person at the event while they are in the middle of the room and says something insightful, then quietly leaves the event.
Get the business cards of each person who makes an impression on you and write the date and main points of your conversation on it. Send them a personalized LinkedIn request referencing your conversation the night or morning following the event. If it is someone you wish you keep in contact with, send an email 1-2 days later asking to schedule a phone call or a coffee meeting.
Networking is one of the most effective ways to expand your professional network, develop valuable interpersonal communication skills, and grow your business. In a sense, it is like medicine. Unfortunately for many introverted professionals networking can be a bitter pill to swallow at the beginning. However, with enough practice it becomes much easier and more enjoyable.