I first published this article on the online network, Ecademy, over 5 years ago. That was after it had featured in our own NRG newsletter, Synergy. Last week a couple of people shared it on Twitter and said it was still current and also great advice for people new to networking. So I thought it would be a good idea to share the article again here.
If you are, by nature, a fairly reserved person, networking could be your worst nightmare: you have to talk to a bunch of people you don't know.
Extroverts blossom when they are in company. Introverts and shy professionals often prefer the company of their own thoughts. Sadly, this is the antithesis of what you need to network effectively.
Why bother networking? Well, survey after survey shows that word-of-mouth marketing is the best way to get new business. The alternative is cold calling, which may send even deeper shudders of horror through you.
So here are some tips to help you not only survive but thrive in the networking arena.
Junk erroneous conceptions
Start by understanding the true meaning and process of networking. Networking is not about selling either your products or yourself. Nor is it a frenzied quest to pump as much flesh as possible and collect business cards like a stamp collector.
The best networkers meet to 'touch base' with their buddies, share industry gossip, get to know people as people not just as job titles, and offer each other friendly support. Networking is about using shared interests to build and develop mutually beneficial relationships.
You network the whole time but you may not call it that. For example, when you ask someone if they know of a good plumber, you're networking. Networking is a lifelong, evolutionary process that you do often, if not every day. It should be as natural as sleeping.
Become a good listener
Some of the best networkers are introverted and shy people. Why? Because they build relationships, which builds trust. Most importantly, instead of pushing themselves forward, they tend to be good listeners. As such, they usually find out more than motormouths!
Shy professionals also tend to reflect on what people tell them. This ability to remember what others say and value is critical to fostering good relationships.
The trick is not to try to be extroverted. On the other hand, you may need to learn to let other people in a little. Even extroverts (well, some of them!) like to know a little about the people they're talking to. You don't need to blabber away; just be yourself. Other networkers worth their salt will respect and value this.
Take things slowly
Recognize the aspects of networking that bother you most. For example, if you're scared of meeting people, begin at an event where there is a guest speaker or workshop beforehand. There you'll be able to meet people in a limited way. You can start to build bridges by talking to the people sitting next to you by asking safe, even innocuous, questions: 'What did you think of the workshop?'
Look for networking events where there are always hosts on hand to effect introductions, so you never have to approach strangers on your own. They are experienced in connecting people in a way that even the shyest person will feel comfortable with.
A number of networking organisations organise tables with a moderator or facilitator to ensure that you get to know the people at your table fairly well. The result is that the next time you attend you will know some people reasonably well, and will be able to greet them as friends.
Tips for shy professionals
Many shy professionals came become immobilized by the prospect of talking to strangers. So here are some tips to help you.
1. Someone will ask you what you do. Prepare and practise a short, snappy introduction for yourself. You will know when you have got it perfect when the person you are talking to asks in response: 'How do you do that?' Here are the key ingredients to a good introduction: We + help + [target market] + [benefit]. For example, 'We help manufacturers double the value of their database'. The trick is to make it interesting. So instead of telling people that you are an HR consultant, you might say: 'We help businesses make "sickies" a thing of the past.'
2. If you're worried about becoming tongue-tied, prepare a set of questions to ask people: 'What do you do? What kinds of client do you prefer to work with? How do you find them?' By learning about your contacts and their businesses, you can direct your conversations and make them more meaningful.
3. Help others. If you are shy, you can bet others are just as shy. Look out for them. They hover by the bar on their own. They stand at the edge of the room clutching their drink close to their chest, like rabbits frozen in the headlights. Spot these people and introduce yourself to them. You will make yourself a friend for life.
4. Focus on what you are passionate about. Many shy professionals see themselves as observers. However, if they feel strongly about something, they'll express it. So what excites you? What current events always capture your imagination? What new products or developments fascinate you? When you hook into these passions, you'll find that your passion takes over, which can help reduce the jitters.
You don't have to be an extrovert yourself to succeed at networking. Use the techniques above to ease your way. As you become a more effective networker, so your appreciation for networking may grow. And when you start receiving the benefits, your appetite for it may even increase.