Even raving extroverts aren’t always excited about networking events, which are pretty much the defining example of “mandatory fun.” If you’re an introvert, however, the idea of hitting up your favorite professional group’s annual networking mixer or glad-handing the other attendees at a trade show probably fills you with dread.
The good news is that with a little preparation and a slight adjustment to your perspective, you can get through your next cocktail party or event unscathed. You might even enjoy yourself just a little bit.
1. See networking for what it is, not what you’re afraid it will be.
The truth is that “networking” is just a bad word for a thing that most of us do all the time: building relationships. Do you attend events with friends who have the same hobbies or interests, or socialize with your co-workers from time to time, or follow that local sports franchise with other fans? If so, you’re attending networking events. You just don’t know it yet.
Not every useful social interaction comes with an Official Networking Event seal of approval. Start your path to networking excellence by recognizing what you’re already doing to build your network.
2. Think of networking as giving, not receiving.
Sometimes, networking is scary precisely because it feels like we’re asking for something – a job, a contact, even a bit of advice. Done well, however, networking is far more about what we do for other people than what they do for us. If you’ve been avoiding networking because it feels like asking for a handout, change your perspective by focusing on helping out other people.
At your next event, concentrate on asking questions instead of giving your spiel, and think about what you can do to help your colleagues, not what they can do for you. You’ll build valuable social capital and feel less like you’re defending your thesis.
Everyone likes a person who likes them, and at least some of them will want to help you out the next time you need a recommendation or a connection. Plus, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping.
3. Make a plan.
You don’t need to talk to every person at the event, or come away with a stack of business cards the size of a small paperback. You do need to decide ahead of time what success looks like for you at this particular event, and make a plan to achieve it.
If you’re just getting your feet wet with networking, maybe your goal will be to have a conversation with three people from outside your department or company. Once you’re feeling more comfortable, you can use the attendee list to target a few people to talk to about topics of mutual interest.
Whatever you do, don’t spend the whole time hiding with the colleague you brought along for moral support. If you only talk to someone you already know, you’re not much better off than you would be if you’d stayed back at the office or at home.
4. Practice your pitch.
Elevator pitches are the 60-seconds-or-less description that entrepreneurs and business owners develop in order to be able to showcase their product or company to investors and clients. As a job seeker or career developer, you should put together your own elevator pitch to describe what you’ve done in your career and what you hope to do next.
Start with the basics. What do you love about your current or most recent job? What do you want to be when you grow up? Where are you most skilled? What would your friends and favorite co-workers say you do the best? Concentrate on the positive, and if you find any room for improvement, file that away as inspiration for future training and continuing education.
5. Remember that everyone is worrying about themselves, and that’s a full-time job.
Finally, when you’re feeling most self-conscious, remember this: everyone is very busy worrying about their own jobs, careers, and potential professional embarrassments. They don’t have any time to watch what you’re doing. If you stumble, do so with the full knowledge that it’s probably way more obvious to you than to anyone else. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move forward with a clear mind.
(Photo Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr)