I ran a training session recently for a group of about 100 career counselors from the California community college system. It was a lot of fun and they were a great audience: we mind-mapped, practiced coaching techniques, watched movie clips, shared favorite funny stories, etc. Some participants expressed surprised when I identified myself as an Introvert. (To be specific: INTP for Myers Briggs aficionados) Really? An introvert running a lively training session in front of 100 people? But this is actually not unusual introvert behavior: many introverts are very comfortable with 1 or 2 people-- or speaking to a roomful of 100 people. Just don't ask us to "mingle" or make small talk with a room of people.
(Like most of you, I've learned to do it, of course-- but it wears me out. I'm soon longing for the peace and quiet of my hotel room and a favorite TV show.)
So wouldn't you know it, as part of the training, I had to set up a networking session. Great. My least favorite activity at a conference or program. Quite frankly, I often skip the networking sessions at conferences. But knowing I couldn't skip this one forced me to think through just what the challenges were and find solutions for the kindred souls in the room.
I tried to think of what my biggest challenge was when I went to a networking event. It was that opening line-- what to say to a stranger that didn't sound forced or awkward. And my solution was pretty simple.
I asked everyone to attach one phrase to their nametags: "Ask me about..." and then fill in whatever topic they wanted to talk about. It turned out to be an introvert's dream. All I had to do was ask them about their topic and I could listen. Which I do pretty well. If I had something to add, I could, but I didn't need to. For most people (even other introverts!) it was off to the races once they had license to talk about their children, favorite movie, favorite city, hobby, etc. Because then it became about a one-to-one conversation-- something most introverts are comfortable with. Ultimately I had several interesting conversations including one with a career counselor who specializes in career issues with Native Americans.
I'm glad I had to face this challenge. I will probably never learn to love networking events, and they will likely drain my energy-- but I have also learned that when you make even just one great connection the event becomes much more enjoyable and worth attending. And that's what you want to keep in mind. Focus on "one" conversation at a time-- don't try to "work the room." You have succeeded at a networking event if you only walk away with one connection. It's not always a numbers game.
So given that traditional networking events are a challenge for introverts so here are some tips:
1. Find a way to make the large group smaller. Join a table with just one or two people. Or sit at the bar or another location and let someone find you.
2. Come in with a list of questions. Several years ago I was trying to write a mystery, and I read this great "how-to" book for mystery authors. Many writers, as you might imagine, are introverts, and the author of this book mentioned how much she hated networking and cocktail parties. But she overcame that by finding a terrific technique for breaking the ice: she would go up to a stranger, ask their profession, and then say, "Now why would someone want to murder a person in your profession?" She said it never failed to lead into an interesting conversation. Now that approach probably only works if you're a mystery writer-- you're likely to be quickly removed from an event if you use that question out of context. But the idea is great: have a question prepared that you can ask anyone.
3. Don't pressure yourself to be something you're not. You will likely not be the "life of the party" (nor do you likely want to be). Focus on being the best you. What is the best you? A good listener? A friendly person? Sometimes just by listening intently you help someone to think out loud and they may even come up with a new idea and credit you for bringing it out!
4. Try to avoid the "eeeewwww" factor. That's what I call post-event trauma: you go back to your room and start replaying the event focusing on all the stuff you said/did wrong. And you cringe. You can't believe you said...did...whatever. First of all, it's likely that no one noticed. It's even more likely that you said/did nothing wrong. Try sitting with those thoughts, breathe, and then say to yourself, "well, that's one opinion." Remember, just because you think something doesn't make it true-- particularly if you tend to be self-critical. So your critical voice is just that: one opinion that you don't have to take to heart.
The "eeeewwww" factor can also apply to social networking when you tweet, blog, or post on Facebook and then cringe at your seeming boldness on the Internet. Which leads me to my last tip about networking--- social networking can be a great way for introverts to develop their network. So...
5. Read helpful books and articles about networking and social networking for introverts. Here are some suggestions:
Nancy Ancowitz writes about Self-Promotion for Introverts and has a nice website with helpful information about networking.
And here's a great link from the Business Pundit-- I particularly like his comment that "networking is an investment, not a nuisance." He also reminds us not to network for the sake of networking.Suite 201 has a post about introvert/extrovert styles in social media. Here's an interesting post on 9 keys to networking via blogs for introverts from Kevin at Real Lawyers Have Blogs. I like this post about being true to ones' self as an introvert. And here's a nice article about why Twitter is great for social media introverts. Finally, here's a post on Introverts, Happiness, and Social Media.