When I was in kindergarten my mother dropped me off outside of the school with a warm “I love you…now go make friends” and as the tears weld up in my eyes as I looked at the vast sea of 5 year-olds crowded around the building, I began my journey as an introvert in an extroverted world. The fear of social situations has been a challenge that I’ve only recently started to appreciate.
I hesitate to explain the necessity of networking, because If anyone feels it is not beneficial for them than I would agree and suggest you not attempt networking. But for anyone who works in sales or requires the collaboration of other people in order to do their job (*cough* all of us *cough cough*), networking has its benefits. My fears of not knowing anyone, not knowing what to say, and not knowing what people would think of me has been the obstacle. And therein lies the problem; we say networking is the problem, but really it is our own insecurities that are the issues. And because crowds are awful, there I said it.
Truth be told: Stay in your head, you’re dead.
I am not a master of networking, far from it, but I’ve applied lots of tricks and a lot of lessons from mistakes that I’ve made. This is not a recipe for ‘how to network’ but some of my favorite tricks that work to get me out of my head and focused on trying to make a connection with a complete stranger …is anyone else feeling anxious yet?
- The Icebreaker – I’ll bypass the pick-up line jokes from the 90’s and suggest you always start with a compliment. People feel best when they are talking about themselves so If you see something even moderately interesting about what they are wearing or how they look give the other person a compliment. Look to compliment the shoes, the bag, the jacket, the haircut, the smile – anything. When they say thank you, introduce yourself. Afterall everyone showed up to network with the intention of meeting new people.
- What do you say? – You’ve made an introduction but now what do you talk about? I’ve always been told to go for the elevator pitch, but this is so robotic it’s a conversation killer. Ask questions about the other person, what they do, their family, previous jobs. If there is ever an awkward silence in the conversation here are a few questions that usually fill the void:
- What was the biggest challenge for your industry last year?
- What are you looking forward to the most this year?
- How did you get into your current career field?
- How’s business?
- What do you know about (insert your industry here)?
- I don’t know anyone here. – This happens to me all the time. If there is someone checking in guests, I prefer to ask where the hosts are and if I could get an introduction. If they point me over to the host while they continue to check in other people, I usually use their name as a reference. For example “Hi, I’m Aaron, Joe over at the check in table said you were our host today and that I should introduce myself.” Simple and straight-forward.
- I need to get out of this conversation. – This happens a lot too. Using the bathroom is the easy cop out, but after 5 conversations where you leave to go to the bathroom everyone is going to start to wonder whether they should shake your hand or get you to the doctor’s office. Excuse yourself to make a call, to ‘make the rounds’, to get a refill, to go say hi to someone you just saw walk-in. If you really need to get out of the conversation be polite and provide your information in case the other person has follow up questions.
- I see someone I need to talk to, but they are in the middle of a conversation. – This is a little more advanced and it works if they are in a 2-3 person grouping. Quietly stand in the small group, and when the person you need to speak with makes a point or finishes a story you follow up with, “Do you mind if I ask a questions?” then ask question about what they just said. Stay on topic and keep the conversation going. Whoever asks the questions controls the conversation so if you keep asking questions you direct what to talk about next and you can always lead the conversation to you with ‘what do you know about [insert your industry here]?’ Usually within the first few questions you can stop and say, “By the way, I’m Aaron,” which prompts them to introduce themselves as well. Boom! Connection made!
When I first started consciously attempting to improve my networking skills I always felt as though I needed to be something more or have something groundbreaking to offer. Which could not be further from the truth. If you are an introvert attempting to network, your goal is not to win a deal in a single conversation. Your goal is to make a genuine connection – that’s it. Get to know someone. You can win the deal later, for now all you have to do is survive the dreaded awkward networking.
People like to talk about themselves and asking questions keeps them talking while I try to silence the awkward introvert voice in my head. Once an introvert – always an introvert. I still feel the anxiety, but the more I practice my networking the more this evolves into my ‘game time’ nerves. I still have to remind myself to ‘be bold, be brave, be daring.’
You can be afraid and still move forward. You can be uncertain and still take action. You can be insecure and still network. Now… go make friends.