Building a business requires connection with people: prospective clients, colleagues, mentors, customers, and sometimes even family members. When we connect, we share information, ideas and inspiration. We problem-solve. We listen and communicate. We do business.
The point of business networking — the face-to-face kind — is to meet people and make connections for mutual benefit. We network to find resources to help us succeed, and to be a resource for others to succeed. We want to find people who can meet our needs, and people who we can help. We find each other by networking.
An Introvert Looks At Networking
If you’re an introvert like me, networking can be a draining experience. Introverts enjoy being with people, but prefer them in small doses where deeper conversations can happen. Larger groups are not where we function best. Starting a conversation with a stranger, let alone joining a conversation already in progress, is a daunting prospect.
We network to find resources to help us succeed,
and to be a resource for others to succeed.
It is important to understand that introversion and shyness are not the same thing. Shyness is a form of fear. Introverts are not necessarily fearful. An introvert is someone who is selective, independent, observational, reserved and introspective. We use few words, and choose them carefully. Introverts need solitude to re-energize, while extroverts are energized by being with people. For the most part, introverts do not enjoy going to large parties.
Have a Plan For Networking
Although they are not parties, large networking events can be challenging for the introvert. In my experience, networking is easier when I am strategic about it — when I have a purpose for it other than for social reasons. I create a few goals for each event and focus on getting those goals done.
To make the most of your time and come away with success, have a clear purpose for attending, and decide on some goals before you go. Here are some suggestions you might consider to improve your next networking experience. These tips are also useful for extroverts.
- Have a purpose. Head off to an event with the expectation of getting acquainted instead of doing business. Don’t go to promote yourself, but to find out who needs what you offer. You do not need to close a sale or convince anyone of anything. All you need to do is begin conversations and then listen — something introverts are very good at. As the talk flows, you will find opportunities to share about your business and how you can help.
- Meet three. Go with the intention of making just 3 new connections — 3 people you don’t yet know. By narrowing your scope from the crowd at large to just a few, you can easily zone in and create meaningful conversations, turning those 3 strangers into acquaintances and then into colleagues. If you meet more than 3 people in a meaningful way, you are all the richer for it.
- Break it down. Large meetings are simply a bunch of smaller get-togethers happening all at once in the same place at the same time. When you arrive at your next event, look around the room. Notice that people tend to group together into clusters of 3-4. You’ll see the occasional group of half a dozen, but for the most part, large gatherings naturally segment into smaller groups. It is more comfortable to approach one small group than to deal with a whole room full of people.
- Arrive early. When there are fewer people around and the event is just warming up, it’s easier to connect one-on-one and get conversations going. As more people show up, you then have the advantage of greeting newcomers.
- Ask questions. To begin a conversation, ask a question. What do you talk about with someone you don’t know? One of my favorite conversation starters is: “Hello! I haven’t met you yet.” Invariably this approach opens the door for the other person to respond. Be inquisitive about the other person rather than pushing your message on them. You can get to know the other person simply by asking questions and allowing them to talk. Ask more questions based on what they’ve just shared. Introverts are generally very good at listening, so forming an effective question from what the other person shares with you is a no-brainer.
- Smile. Overcome discomfort with a smile. Not only do you look more attractive, but you will indeed attract people to you. Facial expressions will invite or dismiss people. For example, at a recent networking event, I was between conversations, standing alone and observing the clusters of people around me, with a smile on my face. I was smiling, just enjoying watching people talking, gesturing, exchanging business cards, and taking selfies together (is it still a selfie if there are more than 1 person in the shot?). Suddenly I was joined by a young woman from New York who struck up a conversation with me. I learned all about her business and her plans to expand from East Coast to West Coast.
- Be aware of body language. It can invite or shut out. If you are in a group that is open to others joining in, make it easy for newcomers to approach by creating gaps in your circle. Make space for others to fill in. When you see someone approaching, smile at them (see the previous strategy). A genuine smile is a sign of good will and acceptance.
At one networking event I observed two attendees in deep conversation for almost the entire evening. They stood close together and faced each other directly with their shoulders parallel. They were not open to widening their conversation. And no one approached them. They were obviously in serious discussion and paid no mind to anyone else.
At another event, I approached a group chatting around a table. Being acquainted with two of people, I expected to be able to join the group easily. But as I came close, the person nearest me leaned across the table and faced inward toward the group. Presenting me with their back, they had effectively closed their circle. I moved on.
We can pay attention to only one person at a time, really. In a group of 3 or more, we will shift our focus from one to another. Sometimes focus shifts in a way that excludes someone. I experienced this while talking with a colleague at a receptions. A friend of his, who I had worked with on a project, joined us. They immediately engaged with each other, edging me out of the conversation by changing the topic and by squarely facing each other so that I was physically sidelined. Rather than stand by awkwardly, I went in search of other conversations.
- Join the team. An easy way to connect is to volunteer to help with event registration or to join the event planning committee. Working alongside people is a great way to get to know them, and there is no awkwardness because common ground is established through common purpose and shared work. You will meet a majority, if not all, of the attendees as you welcome them and help them navigate the event. Being on the planning team makes you an authority about the event, and attendees will naturally approach you.
When someone hands you their business card at a networking event,
it is both an invitation and an expectation.
- Follow up. When someone hands you their business card at a networking event, it is both an invitation and an expectation. Take note of your conversations with each person. Follow up within the next week by email, and share something that might be of interest to each person based on what you talked about. This can be a link to an article, a recommendation, referral, or an invitation to get together over coffee.
I did a conference photo shoot awhile back and between sessions had some down time to get acquainted with one of the conference planners. Our conversation wandered from how the conference was shaping up, to wine tasting, to grapes, to weather patterns, and then to a discussion about Israel’s sea water reclamation processes as a solution to the California drought. A few days later, she sent me an email with a link to information about a sea water processing project in San Diego County. The follow up was entirely off the subject of business, but it increased our connection.
“Whether introvert, extrovert or a mix of both, successful business networking is a blend of strategy, approachability and commitment.”
- Commit to networking. In my experience it takes about 1 1/2 years to start getting business through networking. Don’t expect immediate results. Networking is relational. The more consistent you are at it with the same group, the more relationships you will build. As your reputation and influence grow, you will become top-of-mind for the creative services you offer.
Freelancing is in a way an ideal work style for introverts, because they are able to work alone. But if you're a freelancer, an introvert and serious about developing new business, you must get out there and network. Use these strategies to create connections, find resources and build trust.
Whether introvert, extrovert or a mix of both, successful business networking is a blend of strategy, approachability and commitment. People have a choice in who they work with. They are more likely to turn to someone they know and trust than to a newcomer. They are definitely more likely to recommend you if you have cultivated relationships with them.
Your turn: What are your top 2 networking tactics that work well for you? Share in the comments below.