When I first started my career there was nothing, I hated more than networking. Not only did I view it as a meaningless buzzword, but I didn’t even know how to find events. In my folly and pride, I thought that my work would speak for itself and that my skills and intelligence mattered more than my connections.
Fortunately, that sort of pigheadedness is easy to recast as tenacity, which is valuable for a freelance writer.
But even more than perceiving a lack of utility, I didn’t like networking because I didn’t think my personality was suited to it. My parents could tell you that I’ve always been a little anti-social; as the youngest in my family I was often overlooked at family events. I’m also an introvert — I often prefer reading books to hanging out with friends — and to this day meeting a bunch of strangers in a loud and crowded bar is a personal Hell. The noise, the terrible music, the overpriced alcohol, the smalltalk — I’m sure you’ve all been there. Speaking to an audience of marketers, however, gives me the unique advantage to making the case for networking as a branding tool. You need to market yourself, and networking is a way to get that done
Though reluctantly, I have overcome my hang-ups and now do a lot of in-person networking, which has been very effective at connecting with potential clients — much better than my cold pitching.
Without further ado, here are my networking tips for fellow introverts:
- Network with fellow introverts if you can. This is especially good for us writers, many of whom tend to be loners even if we’re not true introverts. The energy level in introvert-to-introvert networking is more comfortable and you’re much less likely to have to deal with a lot of prying questions.
- Recognize the importance of networking and realize you’re going to have to do it. Think of it as a necessary, if unpleasant duty, like cleaning the bathroom, taking out the trash or staying silent on “Avengers: Endgame” spoilers.
- You don’t have to be talking and glad handing everyone all the time. As introverts we sometimes unjustly are compared or compare ourselves to extroverts in terms of behavior and expectations. But that isn’t healthy. No one at a networking event is going to judge you for not talking to x-number of people or for y-minutes. If you need to step away or outside to recharge, go for it. If you hit it off with someone and don’t feel like talking to anyone else, that’s fine — they’ll probably make for a better connection than someone you say seven words to all night anyways. And if you need to leave early, no one will judge you for that either.
- The alcohol is optional. Yeah, a lot of networking events are held in bars, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink if you don’t want to. I know that for me, alcohol is more likely to put me to sleep than loosen me up — and having to struggle my way through the crush of people and the noise to the bar, attract the bartender’s attention and ask for something is just more stress. But guess what, this is a real world of adult professionals, not a frat from a bad movie and no one is going to force you to drink if you don’t want to. There are a lot of reasons for not drinking and they’re all valid (if you do manage to reach the bar and get water, you should still tip the bartender).
- This is the hardest part for us introverts, but you have to actually talk to people. I once spent most of a networking event pacing back and forth on a patio because I couldn’t bring myself to go up and talk to people. It didn’t help that a bunch of the people at the event had come together directly from work and so they naturally formed knots and clusters around people they already knew or came with. This is really intimidating and can seem very unfriendly. Eventually, some people who weren’t even at the bar for the networking took pity on me and coaxed me out of my shell, allowing me to get talking. But it’s painful and humiliating to feel like you’re the only person who doesn’t know anyone, which makes the instincts to retreat to someplace quiet and not do the networking all the stronger. Remember to take deep breaths and remember that everyone at the event is there to network and meet people. They want you to come up and talk to them.
There are also things that organizers of networking events can do to make them more introvert-friendly.
For the love of all that is good and holy, networking event organizers need to find quieter places. While this can be difficult, because architects and restaurateurs want places to be loud and deliberately design them with high ceilings and hard surfaces that reflect and amplify sound. The result is that some places, according to Kate Wagner in The Atlantic, can have noise levels that range from 70 decibels (the noise level of a highway) to 90 decibels. According to Wagner, 85 decibels is when noise becomes dangerous — that’s for everybody. But for us introverts, noise is stress and discomfort at a far lower level and dealing with it exhausts us quicker. Some restaurants have function halls, but fraternal organizations, like the Knights of Columbus or the American Legion, also have halls that can be rented.
Icebreakers would also be nice. There’s no need for corny theater games — something as simple as everyone circling up and introducing themselves at the beginning of the event can be very effective. Having to make small talk and ask and answer the same questions over and over and over again might be an extrovert’s bread and butter, but it’s torture for an introvert.
Hopefully, armed with this information, my fellow introverts can get more out of in-person networking and organizers can make the effort to appeal to us a little more.
Put these tips in practice at the American Marketing Association Boston’s summer party June 13.