How I beat my fear of networking, and how any wallflower can too

As someone who started out her life as a confirmed introvert, I can relate to anyone else’s fear of networking.

Walking into spaces full of strangers, I could tell which ones were the power players I needed to connect with. Problem was, I couldn’t figure out any inroads there.

So I’d end up stuck on the outer all night, talking to people even shyer than me. None of whom ever remained a contact.

Since that time, I’ve picked up some tricks that, with a little practice, can work for you too.

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1. Adopt a slow-burn mindset

First off, ditch the word ‘networking’ and all its mercenary connotations.

As an introvert, you won’t plug into opportunities as if you were some kind of human Tesla, tanking up from a human power-bank of prospects.

Instead, view this as a slow community-building exercise. You’re trying to find your tribe – business contacts who share your values – and not just meet any person.

Do this now – make a list of the networking (oops, community-building) events you’ve contemplated but not yet tried. Take a long-term outlook and look for event series, rather than one-off occasions.

This helps stretch conversations across several weeks or months, allowing you to build up your profile meaningfully.

Also, choose events centered around workshops, talks or other activities that genuinely interest you. This gives you something to do once you’re there and something valuable to look back upon, apart from standing around uncomfortably all evening.

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2. Have a clear objective

This is a golden rule that any business coach will cite.

Not a whole spreadsheet of objectives (pfft!), but two or three that are simple enough to stay top of mind.

Personally, I’m always trying to grow my support group of fellow entrepreneurs, or meet new business leads. So at any event, I try to speak with at least five people, making sure to swap contact details so I can follow up later through LinkedIn.

Do this now – Write down a specific, measurable goal you can try at an upcoming event.

Examples include: talk to five people; collect 10 business cards for your mailing list; get an introduction to a specific person; tell four people about your business; have at least two conversations where you learn something new; set up a coffee plan with someone.

3. Do some advance legwork

Even if you don’t know anyone going, you can at least look up the hosts and their team beforehand. They’ll get an alert when you browse their profiles on LinkedIn, and might even read your profile, too.

Knowing more about your tribe will inspire ideas on what you can give them at the event. Yes, I mean ‘give’.

If you view each conversation as a chance to give your listener something, whether it’s an insight about the topic or a joke about their industry, you’ll feel much better about starting a conversation. Vastly unlike when your first goal is to take something.

Do this now – Think about how guests will interact at the event. Seated at the same tables all night? Or mingling before a headline event starts?

And consider who is going: senior executives or newbies, men or women, creatives or business owners.

What are some design or writing issues that relate to their industry?

Prepare those conversation-starters. Prepare some easy starters, too. Wow, great shoes – where are they from? Gee, love that painting. Wonder who it’s by?

4. Create body-language cues (not in a weird way)

As a quiet type, the last thing you’ll do is saunter up to someone and start advertising your services.

Instead, start with what you already do best: stand back and observe for a moment.

Get a perspective on the room. Make eye contact with someone else who isn’t part of a group.

I can honestly say this works given how many people are averting their gaze, pretending they’re super-busy with something else. Within five minutes you’ll have a smile from another grateful soul out there, and will be ready to broach those conversation-starters you already prepared (above).

Do this now – Once you have some momentum, stay conscious of other people’s body language, and keep that good energy going.

Be aware of other solo guests hovering hopefully nearby, and reach out to them. Pass drinks across a crowded bar, offer to take someone’s group photo, or comment in passing on any exhibits or displays.

5. Continue networking – online

After the event, take a moment to think what you enjoyed.

Then plan on how you can stay in touch with the people you met. Your in-person encounter was just the beginning of a long conversation, which will mostly take place online.

Your priority will now be to stay in touch by sending articles, links, useful contacts and so on.

And at least now you have that comforting screen of distance – behind your computer.

Do this now – Go over the names of people you met, and reach out to them the next business day. Social media is less intrusive than a direct email, unless you had a genuinely strong connection.

Send them something of interest, and ask permission to stay in touch.

So there you have it. A system of actions that link together, and make the most of an introvert’s best qualities – substance and authenticity.

Like anything in life, you won’t see big fat results drip in overnight. But you will feel more positive about your presence at these events, and you will feel more powerful now that you’re growing your community.

I’d love to hear your tips, so let’s keep the conversation going below.

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  1. Great article, I was nodding my head all the way through because several points are things I’ve implemented myself and can attest to their effectiveness. As a suggestion to other readers, a great place to find regular networking events with loads of business decision-makers is your local chamber of commerce. It will carry a yearly cost to join, but I more than made that up by gaining a client after my first networking (I mean community-building) event.

    The tool I’ve found most effective is simply asking lots of questions about the person you’re talking to… particularly what their business is all about and the role they play there. Without even steering it toward marketing and design needs, the conversations would just naturally go that way, giving me a great lead-in as a graphic designer.

    1. Some really good points, Mark, thanks for sharing. Asking about someone is just gold. And yes, I’m a fan of groups like chambers of commerce too. Not only do they bring together people with similar mindsets, they also nurture those opportunities for ongoing contact.

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