An Introverted User Researcher’s Guide to Solo Networking in Tech/Product
Let me start off by saying two things:
1. I am truly an introvert. If you put me smack in the middle of a party, my face will turn the color of a sunburnt lobster and I will stutter and stammer until I make my way to the corner, the bathroom or the door. I prefer to Irish exit instead of saying goodbye, despite how much I love you. Before I moved to Berlin, I shirked at the idea of a goodbye party or anything putting me in the center of attention
2. I have read hundreds of articles and books on extroversion and networking. I listened to podcasts, attended events on networking (meta), gathered advice from mentors, but nothing pushed me. It took years for me to get to this moment and, looking back, I surely would’ve laughed in your face if you told me I’d be writing this article (well, probably not in your face since I’m self-conscious, and all)
*From here, scroll down about 3–4 “scrolls” to get to bypass my story and arrive at the actual how-to*
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move forward on the subject matter. When I tell people I’m close with that I’m shy or introverted, they laugh. I always get the “no you’re not!” coupled with a chuckle and slap on the back. What they don’t recall (nor could they) was the internal turmoil I felt when meeting or interacting with strangers. The lightheadedness, the shaky, sweaty hands (thank goodness handshaking is relatively out of style), the mantra of “don’t turn red, don’t turn red,” and the sticky, dry mouth that catches your tongue, making it impossible to form already jumbled thoughts into coherent sentences. Socializing is a dream.
So, here I was. I had just started a new career in user experience research, after being in the field of academia and psychology for nearly my entire life (which doesn’t require too much socializing). User research, however, was a complete 180 requiring constant interviews with strangers, workshop facilitation, teaching, negotiating, convincing others to buy into my ideas. By some grace of, what I believe was karmic retribution, I was given a manager and mentor who helped me develop these skills. He taught me almost everything I know about user research and helped build the foundation with me. (Shoutout to John Labriola!)
Anyways, I distinctly remember a moment (which ties back to the point of this article, I promise) when we were sitting in one of our weekly 1x1 meetings (yes, he was that awesome) and I asked him, “how can I learn more and move to the next level?” Since he knew me so well, his first recommendation was a list of books. Ca Ching! I loved reading. Check. Easy peasy. I was about to proudly broach the next subject on my list when I heard him continue on. “The other thing is going to meet-ups and networking — I can’t teach you everything and it’s very important to learn what others are thinking.”
I swear, the sweat started to pour halfway through his sentence. I still remember the thumping of my heart against my chest at the thought of walking into a room of complete strangers, and the way my tongue instantly felt like a foreign intruder. My teeth grated, my jaw clenched and I nodded. Why couldn’t I just read? Or maybe watch YouTube videos? I was that person who loved video games they could play and win on their own — Pokémon, hell yeah I caught all 151 (Mew was real and I refuse to acknowledge the 10,000 additional Pokémon that have come into existence since the originals). I caught them all by myself and, yes, that means I bought a whole other Gameboy for myself, both red and blue versions and I sure as hell connected them and traded by myself. Yeah, I didn’t outgrow that.
I ignored my manager’s advice for some time, much preferring quiet nights on my couch with my user research books (or, let’s be real, Netflix). Then one day, I got laid off. There was a massive downsize at the company I was working for and about half of the employees were cut. I no longer had my constant stream of advice, my stability, my manager, my mentor (well I did, but he wasn’t getting paid to manage or mentor me anymore)…nor did I have a paycheck. It was time to hustle and get a new job, but, consequently, it was also time for Thanksgiving and Christmas, when companies are generally not feeling the hiring vibes.
What was I to do in the meantime, while I was submitting application after application, getting confused about what cover letter went best with which mission statement? I didn’t want to go stale and forget all my user research methodologies. I needed more than the occasional lunch/coffee or messaging my manager in panic mode. I didn’t want to fall behind. Then, one day, it hit me, I had to network. I no longer had a choice. I had to go out into the world of people who did tech and product things and have awkward conversations that hopefully turned into good ones.
I was led to this very moment by a force greater than me. And, up until this moment, I have gone to countless meet-ups, created an entire network of people I rely on in the UX and product world, facilitated and founded meet-ups, spoken at meet-ups (in front of an audience, yes), reached out to complete strangers for advice, created and marketed my own freelance brand, got shot down by countless clients and job opportunities, cried, walked up and introduced myself to strangers at conferences, laughed, felt like a complete failure and felt like I was on top of the UX research world. And now, I am redoing all of that in Berlin. Hint: the more you do it, the easier it gets.
How did I go from the moment in my Brooklyn living room, contemplating what was next and how I was going to pay next month’s exuberant rent check to the person writing this article?
I forced it. I faked it. I gave myself no other choice. I wished there was some magical formula that made me the most compelling, storytelling, captivating extroverted person out there, but I knew wishing would get me nowhere. I took an audit of the things I felt I was good at and enjoyed: listening, asking questions, writing and humor (most times self-deprecating). I thought about how to apply these to the cringingly awkward conversations (or lapses of silence) I had nightmares about.
I prepared for my first meet-up like an astronaut preparing for her first time in space, or how I might imagine she would, with a whole lot of work. I made lists of topics I could bring up (outside of the weather or traffic), articles or books I had read recently, questions I wanted to ask people (ones I had previously asked my manager, so I knew they were pretty good quality), researched the company the meet-up would be held at and, finally, charged my phone battery in case people avoided me like the plague and I would be scrolling through Instagram for hours, with a pensive look on my face, pretending I was reading thought-provoking Medium articles. I memorized my lists, pulled up Google Maps, took many a deep breath and was off to my first solo meet-up.
How I have learned to network as an introvert
For me, there are a few different stages in the introverted networking phase, some of which I now skip over, but they helped me build up the confidence to where I am now.
- While it is helpful to write lists of questions or topics you would like to discuss, for when your anxious brain exits the building without you, it is equally as paramount to come up with answers to your own questions. For a while, I talked them through with myself or wrote them down to practice, in case someone turned around and said, “what do you think of that?” This helped build my confidence to have casual conversations and to give my opinion
- Write and memorize a small pitch about yourself. Similarly to job interviews, people want to know what you do and what got you into the field. Something I quickly learned is that people don’t want your life history, they would like a succinct version. Mine goes along these lines: While I was getting my MA in Psychology, I worked in a mental hospital for about two years. I loved being able to talk to and help people, but the burn out was real! I wanted to take my love of listening, understanding and helping into a different field, and that is when I found the wonderful niche of user experience research! I’ve been at start-ups and larger companies, both full-time and as a freelancer. I love how this field continues to change on an almost daily basis, and how able we are to impact it! This takes about a minute or so to say and gives people an understanding of who I am, where I came from and a brief blurb of why I love being a UX researcher. This statement isn’t invariable, but I always keep it short so people can ask me questions, if they wish. Try your own! And, most importantly, talk yourself UP, not like you are the absolutely best and most untouchable UX’er in the world, but don’t be scared of your own accomplishments or opinions
- Read some articles or tweets about what is happening in the UX world, research the company hosting the event (they often have job opportunities) and stalk the speakers on LinkedIn (gentle stalking is allowed). This will give you a bit of confidence when walking up to strangers, especially if they work at said company or are a speaker
- Don’t forget your business cards, as I always do
- Optionally, and if you want to really challenge yourself, create some goals. I want to talk to 5 new people, receive 3 emails from strangers, ask a speaker a question, approach someone who works at the company for a job opportunity, or just simply sit through the entire meet-up with a smile on my face
During the event
- Take that deep breath before entering the building and know that you are just as qualified, smart, interesting as anyone else in there
- Recognize there are people there who are just as nervous, if not more nervous, than you are (I mean some people are getting up to speak in front of an audience). You can often spot the shy ones as people scrolling on their phone, while frequently looking up to check out if anyone near them is approachable
- If you want to go up to someone, you can do this one of two ways: choose a group of people (more than two) who are having a conversation or approach someone who is alone. When I first started, I would spot a group, usually near the food table, and I would make my way over to the food, loitering around them until I sidestepped my way into the conversation. How did I sidestep? I walked closer to the group, made eye contact with a one or more people in said group, which eventually turned into a silent invitation to join. As I became more brave, I would say something as an opening, but just joining via nonverbal communication works too. If I went for someone who was alone, it was, again, usually near food or drink, I would smile at them and start with, “hey, I’m Nikki” and an extended (sweaty) hand. I followed-up with, “how did you hear about this event?” That usually gives enough information for follow-up questions. Whenever I did this, my anxiety was through the roof, but once you make eye contact and smile, there’s really no going back (well, there is, but it is a bit weird). Most people standing alone also want to be engaging in conversation, unless they are absorbed in their phone, so you might be saving a fellow introvert!
- If walking up to strangers is still too much, you can also stand alone, WITHOUT YOUR PHONE OUT, and look around the room with a smile on your face. No crossed arms either. This body language usually indicates you are open for conversation
- It is usually easy to spot the facilitators of the meet-up, so start a conversation with them saying how excited you are for this talk and thanking them for putting this together. They will sometimes introduce you to other people in charge, speakers or the host of the meet-up
- If all else fails, get some food, sit down and just promise yourself to make it through the meet-up. You can plan everything in advance and still not feel comfortable or confident enough to network, but you are there and that is really all that matters
At my first solo meet-up, I could feel my insides shaking, and my body temperature oscillating between hot and cold. I stood paralyzed with a (probably crazy) smile plastered to my face, completely alone. My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow, I don’t even think I could’ve eaten the food I picked up. I tried to make eye contact, but it was fleeting. It felt like I wanted someone to acknowledge me, but I also wanted zero attention. I eventually sat down alone, listened to the talk and abruptly left. I felt defeated when I returned home, no new contacts or introductions or job opportunities, even after planning so well. I wanted to cry, and probably did, but after a while I realized I had done something. Despite my overwhelming fear, I had chosen to leave my apartment to go sit in a room with strangers, totally alone. That, in itself, was the accomplishment of the night. If I could choose to do that, next time I could choose to introduce myself to someone. And that I did.
After the event
- Follow-up with anyone that you meant within 24 hours, whether this is an email saying how interesting it was to speak to them or setting up a coffee meeting, just reach out
- CONGRATULATE YOURSELF — even if you spoke to no one and scrolled through more of Instagram or Facebook than you thought possible, you still accomplished what you had previously felt was impossible. You did not fail, you took a step forward
- Take what you learned from this event and apply it to the next. I learned that I had all the lists, but no introduction. That is when I came up with my genius opening of “hi, I’m Nikki.” I also sat down with myself and rally figured out why I was so scared. I didn’t want to come off as a bumbling idiot. My mantra became “you are not a bumbling idiot” as I was walking up to introduce myself to someone. Since my brain was so busy mantra-ing, it had less time to tell me how nervous I was. I just had to be sure “hi, I’m Nikki” came out instead of “hi, I’m not a bumbling Nikki idiot”
- Be patient and kind to yourself. I think I went to two meet-ups without speaking to anyone. At the third, someone approached me while I was standing alone, mantra-ing and smiling. Take however long you need to work up to this
- Next time, take a friend or colleague. I know this article is meant to be about solo networking, but sometimes you need an extra boost. There’s no harm in brining someone along, but just make sure you two don’t spend the entire time talking amongst yourselves
So, what is the answer, really?
Recently, I have had an embarrassing epiphany. Life takes a lot of work. This is not to say I haven’t put in any work, but I have realized, if I want to really go after something and succeed, especially if it doesn’t come naturally, I need to put in the time. I can’t cut corners, and there is no magical pill or article that will make you perfect. I have known this for a long time, but, I think part of me has always just wished there was: a pill for weight loss, for making me a better storyteller or creating a more captivating personality, for improving my writing or even getting me to write, for curing all my insecurities. Or, I wished I could read about someone else’s journey and, poof, epiphany, my life would be changed for the better!
And that is what frustrates me as I write this. I’m sure, in my quest to become a more extroverted introvert, I have read articles similar to the one I am writing right now, with similar experiences or advice, and I thought “this isn’t helpful. The person is just telling me their path led them to this moment or they ‘just did it’ and it worked.” Unfortunately though, that is the thing. We’re all human, we all boil down to the same thing. We all have to have our own moments of clarity, realizations, failures, success. Yes, an article, movie or talk can inspire us, but we need to actually do the thing. And, maybe that is why I am here writing this. I’m here to tell you:
You can do the thing. You are more than capable, right now, in ten minutes from now, a month from now, even yesterday! Do whatever you need to do, whether it’s making lists or talking yourself up in the mirror, then leave your apartment and go to the event (or whatever else you may want to do). Take your step forward, whether it be a leap or a baby step.