I recently pushed myself WAY outside my comfort zone and bought a ticket to a networking event. I was sitting in a café in central Guildford where I often write my articles when something weird happened. After pressing the BUY NOW button, my stomach folded in on itself and I began to experience symptoms of an unusual illness known as “extreme post-purchase remorse”. Suddenly I felt like a blushing, sweaty teenager who had been ordered to perform a Britney Spears song alone, on a stage, in front of the whole school...NAKED!
How could one little networking event reduce me to a teenage wreck when I have been on this earth for four and a half decades?
You see I really, really want to be at this event but...I am an introvert.
If I can actually muster the courage to attend, I will have the opportunity spend a whole day with 8 national journalists and editors from the likes of The Guardian, Huffington Post, Marie Claire, BBC Radio 4s Women’s Hour and Good Morning Britain to name but a few. Along with 50+ other business owners, I’ll be learning how to position and pitch my business to the national media (www.soulfulprlive.com). It could be brilliant for my business. But I still feel sick to the stomach at the thought of it.
Networking events have always felt painful to me but I know some people just love them. About 10 years ago, in my corporate job, a personality profiling tool branded me (and just one other manager at the time) as...God forbid…an introvert among a sea of extroverts! It was at that point that I began to hide my discomfort at networking events and buckled down to some serious "working the room" doing my best impression of an extrovert. At the end of those events, I felt so drained that I could barely speak. It was just part of the job – a necessary evil.
Through trial and error, I slowly learned ways to make such networking events manageable. But I wish I’d known what I know now. That I could have made them more comfortable...without the assistance of multiple glasses of wine to make me more…what’s the word…extroverted.
Two years ago, I began some research to understand introversion. Initially, my aim was to overcome my introversion but very quickly I uncovered a new respect for my occasionally debilitating/occasionally liberating personality trait.
I discovered that introversion is like (bear with me here) hair curliness. You might have only one little section of your hair that’s curly (slight introversion). Or you might have a head of tight curls everywhere (extreme introversion). But you are more likely to have something in between. Neither end of the spectrum is better or worse – they’re just different and require different hair products and atmospheres to reach their full potential. If curly hair is in the wrong environment, it’ll frizz. If introverts don't have conditions that allow them to thrive, they will not thrive. But even in the stressful conditions of a networking event, introverts can thrive if they know how.
differences between Extroverts and Introverts: An overview
If I really wanted to attend this event, I had to make sure that my introversion did not control me. So, I very specifically researched ways for introverts to stay real to their personality make-up yet feel comfortable at networking events.
The advice was surprisingly simple. I've condensed some of the most widely accepted advice for successful and comfortable networking for introverts into the list below. I've also compared my event preparation was shaping up.
Comfortable networking hints for introverts: Before the event
· Pre-register or buy a ticket – that way you are less likely to find something more important to do on that day. Tick.
· Know the event format. Sadly many networking events are unstructured and force you mill around for ages before having to interrupt group conversations. Zero comfort here for introverts. Choose a structured event with table moves, pre-agreed discussion topics or ice-breaker activities. Tick.
· Figure out the dress code, if there is one. If not, choose your favourite confidence-boosting outfit. “Nothing new on race day” is a mantra I see written often in my husband’s running magazine. If it's new, scratchy, hangs weirdly when you sit down or doesn’t fit beautifully - don’t wear it. Favourite blue top ready to rock. Tick.
· Be alone before the event. Try not to spend time before the event in draining social activities – you need to power-up for the event. I’ll be sitting alone with my notes on the dawn train to Waterloo. Tick.
· Research the attendees. Thankfully here the organiser and PR guru Janet Murray (@Jan_Murray) has done a fabulous job of setting-up facebook groups, a pre-event zoom meeting and requesting specific attendee preparation before the event. During these on-line conversations, shared articles and questions I have gotten to know at least 5 attendees whom I will be seeking out on the day. Some share my discomfort and even sent warm messages when I announced that my introversion was troubling me. Others are in a similar industry and I'd love to hear their opinions on almost everything.
· Set realistic and measurable goals. I’ve nearly finished my research on the attending members of the press. This is just a little aide-memoir with a couple of their article titles in case I go blank in the moment (common introverted behaviour when faced with constant social interaction). I have two small goals for the day. The first is to ask one question of every journalist at some point during the day. The second is to say hello to the 5 people mentioned above. That’s all. I want to be walking through Shoreditch at the end of the event with a smile on my face.
· Prepare your personal story. Sadly, I am not going to be able to ask questions and listen all day which is in my comfort zone. Someone is bound to ask about me and my story. I thought I had my story done and dusted until I started to write it down. I realised it makes great sense to me but not to someone who has never met me before. I’ve refined my personal and business "elevator pitch" and feel more comfortable. Still, I’m not looking forward to talking about myself but it is a means to an end.
How comfortable networking styles differ for introverts and extroverts
It’s one thing being prepared for a networking event and another feeling comfortable during the event. The research suggests that there are opposing but equally successful methods of networking at an event for extroverts and introverts. Check them out below:
It's worth noting again that these are just differences in equally successful networking styles - not good/bad labels.
Comfortable Networking Hints for Introverts: On the day
Arrive early (ish). No need to arrive so early that the organisers are still setting out the name tags but arrive a few minutes early to freshen up rather than arriving incognito when the event is in full-flow.
Schedule to meet one or more of the group before so that you can arrive together. Someone suggested meeting for breakfast and I jumped at the chance, thinking that this might ease my nerves and probably make the whole day more comfortable.
Seek out your top 5. Remember your small list of people that you really wanted to connect with…seek them out.
Ask open questions.
Real compliments or comments. Offer a truthful compliment on another attendee's outfit/bag/pen etc. Who doesn't love an authentic compliment? Alternatively comment on one of the speakers' points and ask what the person beside you thinks. Who doesn't love to have their opinion requested?
Good posture. Make eye-contact and stand tall giving the impression of confidence, even though you are not feeling it.
Names. Make an effort to learn a couple of names. It's such a big compliment to have your name remembered and will make you memorable.
Jot down some notes from conversations with anyone you have spoken to (back of business cards are really good for this).
Follow up after the event with a message containing a fragment of your conversation. This is a giant differentiator rather than the generic “great to meet you email”.
Be real. In order to make any concrete connections, you have to connect as humans. This is difficult if you are disguising yourself as something you are not…even if that's an extrovert.
This last one wasn’t in any of the research but since I say it regularly to my daughters when teaching them how to make friends I think it is worthy of a place on the list. It is simply – Smile and say “Hello”. It’s the world’s greatest conversation-starter.
The event starts in less than 48 hours. I'm still not looking forward to it (Sorry @janet_murray). I definitely won't work the room like a social butterfly. I won't pretend to be more extroverted than I am. I'll just be me. I certainly feel more comfortable than I ever have after doing the research and preparing. That said, realistically I'm also expecting the stomach flipping to return on the day!
If you'd like to read more - have a look at the following books:
Networking for people who hate networking – Devora Zack
Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
Never eat alone – Keith Ferazzi