I’m an introvert. And yet I’ve learned to embrace networking.
I used to be one of those people who was terrified of “networking”— those awkward happy hours in which you make stilted conversation with strangers while trying to balance your drink and a small plate of messy finger food. But when I went out on my own four years ago and started MelEdits, I realized I had to tackle my dislike and fear of networking events if I was going to meet potential clients and grow my business. I needed to find the balance between being a wallflower and a slick saleswoman.
Even if you’re in a steady job now, you still need to network. Waiting to network only when you need a new job is too late. It will come across as desperate. You need to cultivate a vast, diverse group of people you feel comfortable reaching out to when you need them.
Here are six tactics I have embraced to make networking events more rewarding — even enjoyable:
1. SET A MONTHLY GOAL
Commit to attending a certain number and type of networking events each month. Perhaps you commit to one happy hour event in your industry as well as two one-on-one coffee meetups. Schedule a reminder on your calendar the month before to research and schedule these events, and to email colleagues you want to get together with.
2. REGISTER FOR A NETWORKING EVENT
This may seem simple, but some people respond better than others to external accountability. For those people, just the fact that they paid ahead of time to attend an event will make them go. Or, if they schedule a one-on-one meeting, they wouldn’t dream of cancelling. So, don’t hesitate. Don’t postpone. Schedule now.
3. SET NETWORKING GOALS FOR EACH EVENT
I tell myself that I must meet a set number of new people — say, three or five — at an event and have at least a 5-minute conversation with them about something other than the weather. This often leads to longer conversations and to meeting more people as they cycle in and out of small groups. The key is I give myself permission to leave after I’ve met my quota. Often, though, I’m deep in conversation or enjoying a laugh with someone and I will stay longer. But giving myself permission ahead of time makes me feel free and more relaxed.
4. PREPARE QUESTIONS AHEAD OF TIME
As an introvert, I don’t often feel comfortable speaking off the cuff unless I’ve clicked quickly with someone. And once you realize you have clammed up, it becomes even more intimidating to open your mouth. Instead, I prepare a short list of questions. You can memorize your questions or write them on a notecard or in your phone. It’s helpful to practice your questions aloud ahead of time, but you can also sneak peeks at your list during the event. Develop creative — but not wacky, uncomfortable questions — like “what was the best part of your work week?” or “did you do anything fun last weekend?” or “what’s your favorite part about (insert your city here)?”
5. WRITE NOTES ON BUSINESS CARDS
After you meet someone you would like to stay connected to, be sure to ask, “Do you have a business card?” Take a few seconds after the person walks away to jot down a few reminder notes so you can remember what they looked like, what you discussed and how they might relate to your career. (If you wait until the end of the event, it may be too difficult to remember all the details.) Write simple things like, “bright green shirt, loves golden retrievers, looking for website writer in few months.”
6. FOLLOW UP ON THE SPOT
This can be especially intimidating for introverts, but challenge yourself to follow up right then and there if you feel a connection. You can simply say, “I’d love to continue our conversation about X. Can I buy you coffee sometime? Here’s my business card.” Now, as a fellow introvert, I know you’re probably thinking, “What?! What if they say no?!” But honestly, does anyone ever just outwardly say “no” and walk away?
How do I know all of this works? Because I’ve been following this system for four years now and have landed several clients and even made new friends by attending networking events. By preparing ahead and accepting more and more invites, you will improve your networking skills — and may even find you like it.