Anybody who has met me in the last few years probably wouldn't believe I am a hardcore introvert. About as “I” on the Meyers-Briggs as possible. Like many other introverts, I’ve learned to operate effectively in social situations -- and the ideas in this two-part article have helped.
Two disclaimers first. One, I know I am oversimplifying the idea of introversion, equating it with shyness. Indulge me. Two, this article focuses on networking events as they relate to job seekers. But almost all of the ideas I share are relevant to anyone who goes to any type of event where networking is possible, for any reason, but struggles to talk to strangers.
First, my story. In the summer of 1996, I moved to a new city. A total newbie when it came to networking, I realized that as an outsider, the best career opportunities in my new hometown depended largely on getting connected ASAP. And that the most efficient path was networking events. Gulp.
As an extreme introvert, I found that idea as appealing as root canal surgery. But I started forcing myself to attend local networking events. The typical timeline went something like this:
7:15 - arrive
7:16 - station myself in the darkest corner, ideally behind a plant
7:25 - jealously watch the guy in the middle of the room -- the one who is greeting people left and right, accumulating business cards
7:30 - flee
7:31 (and for the next few days) - beat myself up
There’s nothing quite like self-flagellation to help with a job search, not to mention bolster’s one’s confidence at future networking events.
At about this time, I met a remarkable career coach and author of the book, Rock Your Network®, who helped me move past this problem. Wendy Terwelp of Opportunity Knocks had a three-step plan that worked like magic. It didn’t get me out of my dark corner, but following her advice, I turned that corner into a goldmine. And a comfortable one at that.
Before sharing the magic formula, here’s the backdrop. When I told Wendy about my problem, she smiled and told me that my fundamental problem was the guy in the middle of the room -- the guy with all the business cards. “You think that’s success. You are measuring yourself against the wrong ideas about networking. After all, he’s going to wake up tomorrow with 75 business cards, and no meaningful connection to any of the people he collected them from.”
She went on to explain that my goal shouldn’t be the quantity of contacts, but the quality. “Four meaningful connections -- the kind where you remember those people the next day and would be comfortable picking up the phone to follow up -- would be better than dozens of superficial ones.”
Here are the insights/steps she recommended.
1. Guess what? You aren’t alone in that dark corner.
That’s right. Over 50% of the population leans towards introversion, and most people would admit to being pretty clueless about how to best leverage a networking event. That dark corner is often well populated.
2. Easiest. Conversation. Ever.
Those people sharing the corner will not rebuff your efforts to strike up a conversation. In fact, more often than not, you will appear to them the way a lifeguard holding a flotation device appears to a drowning man.
Start with a question like “What brings you to this networking event?” Or perhaps warm them up first by sharing something about yourself. “I wish I was better at talking to people at these events.” Then, there’s a simple trick for making the conversation continue. Everything they say contains something you can turn into a follow up question. (For example, they reply “It seems awkward to me also.” And you respond: “Really? You seem like a natural. How do you usually get the conversation started?” You can make this technique work indefinitely.)
Your ultimate goal is to walk away from the conversation confident that 1) you know what types of opportunities they are looking for, and 2) they know what types of opportunities you are looking for. If you have business cards (they aren’t obsolete just yet) exchange them. If you don’t have a great memory, write down on the back of their card something significant about your conversation, as well as what they are looking for. (Make sure you follow up, or growing a network is pointless!)
3. Mastering the handoff.
Back to the drowning man metaphor. I received some lifeguard training as a teenager. They warned us about the dangers of rescuing swimmers in distress, since it could easily lead to two people drowning. Drowning people grab on and won’t let go. This often applies conversationally to the other people hiding in the corner. They are often so grateful that someone started a conversation, that they won’t let go. Have no worries! The “handoff” is the graceful way out of this trap.
Once you have made a good solid connection, the handoff involves bringing someone else into the conversation. Look for someone nearby who appears to have tuned into your conversation. I did this at a recent event when a guy standing near me and a new acquaintance clearly perked up at the word "Android." I turned to him and said, "maybe you can help us settle a debate ... Android or iPhone?"
Moments later, I was bored with the raging debate that ensued. Time for the handoff. Pick your timing carefully (like now, when your two conversationalists find a topic of shared interest) and politely disengage. “Well, I’m going to continue to mingle. A pleasure meeting you both.” Better yet, finish those thoughts with “let’s connect on LinkedIn, so we can stay in touch.”
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15+ years later, you still won’t find me in the middle of a networking event, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone. But I no longer need a plant to hide behind. I’m busy working the fringes, where most of the interesting people are.
If you found this helpful, stay tuned for part two. I have some additional tips to help introverts get the most out of networking events!