Networking for introverts, the shy and the socially anxious
The secret to tackling a networking event, if you’re a person who struggles with socialising, is preparation
Networking events can be hard for introverts, the shy and the socially anxious.
I know this, as I fall under two of those categories: as well as being extremely introverted, I’m also prone to social anxiety. That makes socialising difficult and socialising in a work capacity even more so.
Introversion is sometimes confused with shyness, but the two don’t always appear together. Introverts have many great qualities — for a detailed look at them, read Susan Cain’s book Quiet — but we quickly tire when having to deal with groups of people and struggle to make small talk, both of which are key elements of networking events.
Shyness is basically a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, which (among other things) impacts on a person’s abilities to meet people and talk about themselves. So while it may sound weird, extroverts can be shy, while introverts can be bold.
Social anxiety is a complex disorder. But in the simplest terms, it’s a strong fear of social situations — hence its nickname, ‘social phobia’.
All three of these can lead to people avoiding social situations — introverts because we find them tedious, exhausting and distinctly not fun, while the shy and socially anxious because they’re simply frightening.
But you can take steps to succeed at a networking event. Shy and socially anxious people can add the techniques below to their coping toolsets, while introverts will find these steps leverage our personality type’s advantages.
Research is your weapon
To succeed at a networking event — not just ‘cope with going’ — requires preparation. And you don’t have to meet anyone face-to-face to do it, as this process takes advantage of social media.
Essentially ‘social media’ refers to any website where the focus is on interacting with other users. So while that covers the websites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (and Baidu, for Chinese audiences), it also refers to communication services (Slack and SnapChat), video and music sites (SoundCloud, YouTube and Vimeo), specialised sites (Stage32 and The Black List), and even blogging services (Wordpress and Medium).
In today’s world, it will be unusual for a publicly advertised networking event to not have some kind of social media presence, whether it’s a Facebook event page or just a Twitter hashtag.
This means you can use the event’s social media presence to learn more about who’s going to the event and make the first contact with some of them. This way you won’t be entering a room full of strangers when you arrive — something I enjoy as much as Indiana Jones enjoys a trip to a reptile house).
The opening move is to check the event’s social media presence.
The first thing to ask yourself: will this event be of any real use to me? Be honest when answering this question — missing a useful event could hurt you, but putting yourself through the stress of an event that won’t help you is psychological self-harm.
When you’ve decided you do want to go, turn your attention to the attendees. This next section may sound creepy. And if would be if you were researching a potential date, but researching a potential business partner is due diligence.
Look at the list of attendees, and if any peak your (professional) interest, run them through Google and Bing, check their Twitter and Facebook feed, and read their blogs and posts — the usual things we all do when we meet a potential date, and deny doing.
If any of those people seem even more interesting to you, use the site’s functions to introduce yourself. You could leave a (nice) comment or compliment on one of their posts about their work or an insightful comment they’ve made.
If they’re open to talking with you, they’ll reply. If you find a good rapport, casually suggest you make time to say hello at the networking event itself.
If they don’t reply to you, don’t worry about it — just move on to someone else. If they are rude or abusive, block them, report them if necessary (at a minimum, make the organisers aware of the abuse) and move on to someone else friendlier.
By checking out attendees, you can make yourself a list of people you’d like to meet at the event. Having a goal can make the whole event less stressful.
Find your words
The next task is to ready yourself to do the thing all introverts and shy people hate doing: talking about themselves.
Introducing yourself is this easy. You say: “Hello. I’m — ” and give your preferred name. To avoid cheek kissing, reach out your hand for a shake.
If you want a more detailed introduction, you need an elevator pitch: a few words that:
- Describe you,
- Helps you to stand out, and
- Will make people interested in hearing more about you.
So, figure out what makes you unique and memorable in the crowd that will be at the event. At a screenwriters’ networking event, saying “I’m Joe, a screenwriter,” could make you fade into the wallpaper. “I’m Joe. I make drama-documentaries,” or “I’m Joe. I work on [insert series/channel here],” are more memorable.
Small talk is troublesome for most introverts because it’s very hard for us to be interested — let alone feign interest — in topics that don’t interest us. This means, if we’re not careful, we never develop the skills needed to talk about nothing for hours at a time. Meanwhile, shy people would just prefer not to talk.
An easy workaround is to keep a list of open-ended questions in your head. Questions that can’t be answered “yes” or “no” forces wordier replies from people. Then all you have to do is concentrate on what the person is telling you.
This trick means introverts tend to be likeable. People like talking to someone who genuinely listens to them, and it’s natural for introverts to actively listen to people who we find interesting. And as extroverts love talking, they enjoy not battling to get a word in edgeways.
If the person is one of those people you researched via social media, ask them about that thing you were both talking about, or that piece of good news they’ve just had.
Don’t make it overly personal: “How is your kid doing at the new school?” is good, while “I’m sorry your Gran has genital herpes again,” would be likely bad.
If you’re really stuck you can always fall back on the “Did you see [day’s big news story/meme of the day]?” and “What brings you here?” gambits.
But remember, when it comes to small talk:
- Keep things casual — “no money, no politics, no religion” is a good guide of topics to avoid.
- Keep things positive: no gossip, bad-mouthing or complaining.
If you’re worried your small talk skills are lacking, take a lesson from Commander Data and practice beforehand on strangers, unsuspecting coworkers and helpful friends.
At the event
Setting myself targets for networking event helps make them tolerable and encourages me to stay for the duration — it’s not networking, it’s a game.
So I set myself two goals: duration and contacts made.
I set myself a minimum time to stay at the event: usually around 45 minutes to an hour. Knowing I can leave after that time alleviates my social anxiety: I know I’m not trapped there, as I have permission to leave early. (This may not make sense to you, but anxiety disorders are neuroses — they are not logical.)
That said, I will leave an event early if something happens that makes me uncomfortable, or if my read of the room makes me think my time will be better suited elsewhere.
Goals: People met
I will set myself a target number of new people to speak to during the event. Like the duration goal, having a target number of people to speak to reduces my anxiety about approaching strangers.
If you choose to do this, pick a target number that works for you: not what other people say you should do. My goal varies from two to six people, depending on the event, time I have available and how anxious I’m feeling.
This is where your research helps. If you set your goal at five people and you have researched two people you want to meet, it means you only have to speak to three complete strangers.
People you have already met do not count. If you see someone you know, you should definitely speak to them, but you are there to make new contacts.
Make good-quality contacts
The point of a networking event is to make contacts. Some of my friends aim to collect as many business cards as possible. But I use “less is more” strategy, so I aim to get a few “high-quality” contacts.
This means I spend a lot of time talking to a few people, rather than treat an event like speed dating.
If you chose this strategy, you need to decide what a “high-quality” contact is for yourself.
Breaks are good
Socialising is stressful and tiring for introverts — more so for shy people and the socially anxious — so take breaks.
Whether you duck into the toilet or even go outside to “check your emails” or have a vape, a few minutes away from the crowd can help keep you going a little bit longer.
This is especially true for events that last a few days, such as the London Screenwriters Festival or the Nine Worlds convention. While both of these events are excellent—and I strongly recommend attending them (if you have the time and money)—they can feel like a series of ultra-marathon networking sessions. By day three of LondonSWF, you’ll find packs of introverts quietly sitting in rooms, eyes glued to their phones, rebuilding their energies for more socialising.
Keep a few of your business cards in a pocket within easy reach. (I find a jacket or shirt pocket is useful for this — but I’m a man, so I get real pockets in my clothes.) Cards I receive go in a different pocket, separate from my own.
Never put someone’s business card in your pant’s back pocket as sitting on their card is a not-subtle suggestion about what you think of them, or put it aside on a convenient surface (too easily forgotten or spilt on).
Use empty space on the card to make notes about the person and what you talked about. Do this as soon as possible: even if you have to duck into the toilet to make them.
And have a mark for if you don’t want to contact that person. If I see a card I so marked, I know it’s for recycling.
These reminders are only for you, so use shorthand or abbreviations. For example, if I met someone at a BAFTA event, who chatted about their 18-year-old who recently left for university, and agreed to a coffee or Skype meeting about a pitch, I may write:
cof/Skype re pitch
Make notes that are useful to you. I have an appalling memory for people — I am the person who introduces himself to be told, “We’ve met… five or six times” — so my notes have to be pretty detailed.
After the event
Now you’ve made contacts, the next step is developing a relationship. This is the most important part of networking events — not the event itself.
The next day, at the latest, go through your the business cards you collected.
Turn the notes on the cards into proper reminders and a ‘to do’ list. And carry out any actions you said you’d do.
Add your contact’s personal or professional details to your contacts book. Such details include the obvious — email, phone number, company name and job title — but also personal details — whether they’re married, have children, or their partner’s name. These details are useful for making your communications more personal.
In your notes, also include where (the event) and when (date and time) you last met or talked, and what about. Customer or client contact sheets for salespeople, or guides to reporter’s contact books, can help with the former, and call log templates will the latter.
If you store contact information in an electronic device, and you work in the UK or the European Union, you should visit the website of the Information Commissioner’s Office for advice on data protection regulation and GDPR affects you.
Within two days of the event, contact the people you met and set up another meeting — whether for coffee, a lunch or for a Skype chat.
This is when you start really building up the relationship, which will lead to you getting work. If you do not follow up and start to build those relationships, attending the event will have been a waste of your time.
Making connections with other professionals is vital in any industry to progress your career. And if you’re self-employed, you will need them if you want to expand your client base and keep jobs flowing in.
There are two more things you should not do at any networking event.
Drink too much
If you find networking stressful, don’t fall into the trap of drinking to give yourself courage.
Having a drink can help you relax and make socialising easier, but stress makes adrenaline flow, and adrenaline amplifies the effects of alcohol: you can suddenly find yourself in trouble, even if you drink well under your usual limit.
Act obnoxious if you want, but once people take notice they won’t want to deal with you.
At one event, two young actresses introduced themselves to me. I didn’t even get a chance finish saying “I’m a writer” before they exchanged eye-rolls and dashed off to introduce themselves to someone else.
Besides being bad manners, acting like this is counterproductive. As word spread among attendees, people stopped seeing these women as professionals who were worth their time.
Here’s a quick list of what you need to do to successfully tackle a networking event:
- Research the event.
- Research the people attending the event.
- Prepare your introduction/personal pitch.
- Prepare your questions and small talk.
- Have enough business cards ready.
- Relax and try to have fun.
That last one is the most important thing: do your best to enjoy yourself at these events and meeting new people. It may seem like an impossibility, but these things really can be fun.
UPDATE (12 Aug): Thanks to those who’ve responded so positively to this piece. I hope you find it helps with your networking. I would be interested to hear whether any of this advice helped you with networking—or if it did not help, please let me know—and anything you’ve found helps you with socialising.