Networking for Introverts: What You Don’t Learn in School

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If there’s one thing our professors, mentors, and advisors drilled into us as we prepared to finish school it’s that networking, and building a robust group of professional contacts, is foundational to a successful career. But for many of us, the traditional idea of networking— waltzing into a room full of strangers and yukking it up while trying to balance a drink, a tiny hors d’oeuvres plate, and endless handshakes—sounds like nothing short of torture.

Unfortunately, all those people who preach networking are right.

Fortunately, there’s more than one way to go about it.

I’m absolutely one of those introverts who doesn’t thrive in typical happy-hour-and-chat situations, but I’ve found ways to adapt. For example, I reach out cold to authors when I read articles, blog posts, and other thought leadership I admire, in order to connect one-on-one in a more purposeful, mindful way. (I explain more in the video I made for ATD’s Applied Learning Summit 2018.)

University of Pennsylvania’s associated director of career services, Joseph Barber, shares more advice in his recent article for Inside Higher Ed.

But even with the other ways we might find to expand our connections, traditional networking scenarios are often unavoidable. To make them easier, I’ve spent a lot of time researching and practicing communication strategies for networking as an introvert. And like any communication scenario, when I go in with a game plan and a sense of focus, I find I’m much more effective.

3 Communication Tips for Networking as an Introvert 

1.   Know Your Audience

Whether you’re giving a formal presentation to thousands in an auditorium, or making your way into a cocktail hour, knowing your audience—and preparing ahead of time—is the best way to set yourself up for success. You may not have access to a guest list for every networking event you attend (though occasionally you will), but you can absolutely spend some time studying the types of people who will be there (what industries are they in, and what are their roles?) to get a sense of possible conversation topics, value you can add, and even a short list of folks to make sure you meet.

2.   Maintain Open Body Language

When we’re in uncomfortable or awkward situations, our tendency is often to close up, crossing our arms, letting our resting faces turn a little icy, and taking up as little space as possible. (Likely also clutching our phones to make it look like we’re doing something other than standing awkwardly.) But this closed-off body language doesn’t do us any good. According to behavioral investigator Vanessa Van Edwards, crossed arms and tucked shoulders make us look less approachable to others, closing us off from conversation opportunities. Further, these “don’t-talk-to-me” nonverbal cues only compound our own discomfort, setting off a vicious cycle in which showing our nervousness only makes us more nervous. Instead, focus on keeping your arms at your sides, standing up straight, and keeping a smile on your face. Not only will you look more approachable, but you’ll start to feel more confident as well.

3.   Find Common Ground

Often, the hardest part of a conversation with a stranger is getting it started. We kick off with standard questions—“What’s your name?” “What do you do?”—and after that, we’re stuck. But the best way to start building a new connection is to find common ground. One way to do this is to ask open-ended, specific questions that invite the other person to talk about themselves (something we’re all comfortable doing). Instead of “Have you had a good week?” try, “What’s been your favorite part of this week?” The more you can get the other person talking, the sooner you can find common ground. Not comfortable searching for common ground right away? Start with what’s right in front of you. “What brings you to this event?” or “I loved what the speaker had to say about X and Y. What were your thoughts?” can start you down the right path.

What are your favorite networking strategies? Share in the comments below.