Crowds are not a fun way to network. Image from Flickr.

Networking for Introverts

If you get hives every time someone says “networking” this is for you.

People are often surprised that I’m not an extrovert. I’m willing to get up on a stage and talk, I go to events, and I know a decent number of people. I went to grad school at what felt like the extrovert home-base. Even with all of that, I am not even close to an extrovert.

Traditional networking is the worst for me. Like many introverts, I dislike small talk. I feel out of place in a giant group of strangers. Data backs it up: I recently got a Spire and my most tense moments are all when people are milling around in a group, with no goal.

The networking advice I always got was “just put yourself out there” and “you’ll get used to it.”

I didn’t.

You might not either (and that’s okay!)

I think meeting people is important for generating and refining ideas. I needed to find a better way to do that than traditional networking. I came up with this set of strategies to make sure I meet people. It works for me: if I didn’t have these, I’d probably stay home with my cat and read a book every day.

(1) Make yourself available.

It’s much easier to say “yes” to a personal ask than it is to show up at a random event. It only took a couple minutes to put a /coffee page on my website. This is much easier for me. If someone reaches out, they already know they want to talk to me. We don’t have to struggle to find common ground: we talk about Product. It seems small, but builds over time. If someone emails me once a week, that’s 52 new, interesting people per year. (Yesterday this meant I ended up at a boxing class!)

Speaking works the same way. If you volunteer to talk at a conference, people already know what you’re thinking about. They’re able to approach you if they have similar interests.

(2) Set a goal: Have one good conversation.

If I do find myself at an event, I set a goal. I view any experience as being worthwhile if I have one good conversation. I don’t need to meet everyone in the room. I don’t need to stay the entire time. I don’t have to exchange contact information. I just need to have one good conversation, and then I’m done.

For me, this goal works because I find the conversation rewarding. Some people like to use “talk to three people,” but that leaves me tired and unfulfilled. It also gives me permission to leave conversations that aren’t working and move on.

Sometimes even that goal is too daunting, and I cheat. I’ll research attendees in advance to find someone I really want to talk to. Then, I’ll email them and ask if we can meet at the start of the event. I can’t bail on the event because I already have a conversation set up. I also look forward to it more because I know where I’ll be starting. Similarly, I’ll invite someone that I want to get to know better to an event I think we’d both enjoy.

(3) Know your limits, and set rules.

I prefer the school of thought that says introversion/extroversion is about where you gather energy from, vs. if you are outgoing or shy. I can only spend so much time with people before I need to be alone and recharge. I’ve spent time calibrating that (and started building a tool at one point).

When I’ve reached that limit, I do not go to events or take meetings. I’ve learned that I’ll be grumpy, and no one will get much out of the interaction. I’ll dislike it, and it creates a vicious cycle: I go out the next day to try to be “better,” but am more tired, and it’s worse. Eventually I just end up exhausted and furious at myself.

I’ve tried to set rules to help this happen. The best one I’ve found is “always stay home on Friday night.” That creates a strong foundation for having enough alone time. If I do go out on Friday night, I’m likely to make my entire Saturday unproductive, which is some of my best working time. If I stay in Friday, I tend to work on Saturday, go out Saturday, relax Sunday, and return to the office refreshed on Monday.

I’ve noticed that unless I make a firm rule, I’m too tempted to give into peer pressure. Other people don’t understand why one Friday can throw off a whole week for me. At the very least, know what the limit is. If you keep violating it, set rules.

Are you an introvert? How do you cope with public life? Write a response below! I’m always looking to get better. (And if you know an introvert who might benefit from this, I’d appreciate it if you hit the “recommend” button).

In early January, I went on #SVBTrek, sponsored by Silicon Valley Bank. The event brought together 24 students from around the country. It was an awesome experience, and Lina Colucci shared some notes. I was originally slated to attend in 2015, but the HBS schedule didn’t allow for it. SVB was gracious enough to have me this year. The goal of the event was helping students from around the country create networks with each other, and with those in Silicon Valley. It also prompted reflection: I got all the early thoughts for this post while sitting in a corner wondering why I was so bad at networking.