There are some people out there who, for some weird reason, actually enjoy ‘networking’. These oddballs actually get a kick from talking about nothing, for hours, with total strangers and then they somehow become best friends with them. Well, this post is for the rest of us. The introverts. The people who can think of nothing worse than a big room of people all making ‘small talk’. This is for the people in the corner who know they should be networking, but just can’t bring themselves to do it. It’s the way I’ve learnt to cope as an introvert. A lot of this was inspired by Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’’, but this is how I’ve applied it in my working life.
What is an Introvert?
I like to go by the Myers-Briggs concept of an introvert. It’s not necessarily someone who is quiet or shy, although that can be an attribute too. Instead, an introvert is someone who finds their energy gets drained by too much social stimulation. So you can even quite like parties, but just not too much of them. Or maybe you’ve no problem with public speaking, but feel drained afterwards. Introversion is all about the energy.
What are the Strengths of an Introverted Networker?
Because introverts need to limit the amount of external stimuli, they tend to live internally most of the time. This makes them great thinkers and great listeners. Introverts like getting into one subject at a time and we tend to be much better at detail and complexity. But we’re awful at small talk. In fact, we can’t really engage with a conversation that keeps everything light and constantly moves from one subject to another. But give us one subject that we’re actually interested in, and we can really enjoy getting into depth and talking about it. If the networking has a theme, a subject we’re there to talk about, then we’ll do fine. So for general business networking? No thanks. For GDC? Count us in! This is a conference all about things which interest us, with lots of people who want to talk in detail about tech and games. And a lot of them are introverts. So GDC is actually quite well suited for introverts’ abilities as networkers. We just need to learn how to do it well.
So How Does an Introvert Network Effectively
Ok, here are my top tips:
We’re not great at making stuff up on the hoof, so we just need to prepare the bits we’re scared about. This will make things go much more smoothly and will help get rid of many of the fears of unstructured networking.
2. Getting into a conversation
So you go into the hall, there are a load of huddles and you’re not part of any of them. The first thing you need to accept is that everyone is there to network. In normal life, it’s really rude to just walk up to a conversation, but those rules don’t apply at networking events. You’re meant to say hello! And if you don’t want to walk up to a group, just say hello to an individual. The key is knowing that this is a perfectly fine thing to do and having something scripted to get you past the introduction. Literally write it down and learn it. And practice it, including shaking someone’s hand. Something like “Hello, do you mind if I join? I’m Grant, I work for Mercuna. We do 3D Navigation middleware. What about yourself?” Just something simple and natural. And now you’re in the conversation.
3. Avoid small talk
It’s utterly dull anyway. Talk about your work or their work: that’s what you’re there to do! Steer the conversation to something you want to talk about by asking for their opinion on it, or ask them how they did something. Just don’t feel you need to waste energy on small talk.
4. Make it a discussion
Don’t get trapped into constant listen mode, never being able to get a word in. If they’re just going on and on and on, get into the conversation. You’ll need to listen closely so you can pick up on cues. Ask them a specific question about something they’ve said. Or ask them how they found working with X or developing Y. Or relate something they’ve said to something about your own work, or maybe something that came up in a talk. Or ask a third person what they think of what is being said. Just prepare some techniques to get a word in and be part of the conversation. These types of questions are also good if there are silences in the conversation.
5. Talk about interesting stuff
Have a list of interesting things about your own work. Things you want to talk about. This list is your lifeline when the conversation goes quiet and you don’t know what to say. It links into all the times you want to steer the conversation away from boring topics, or want to get into the conversation. Use those cues and interjections to add in these conversation items. And if you are walking about knowing you have this safety net, you’ll be a lot less anxious about getting into conversations with strangers. Your ‘get out of jail free’ card is: ‘Can I tell you about what I do?’ Use this whenever you’re stuck in silence or small talk as a way of steering the conversation towards something that actually interests you.
5. Conserve your energy
This is going to be draining and you need to make sure you don’t get overstimulated and drained. So don’t feel bad about taking yourself away for 20 minutes for a cup of coffee, or to catch-up on emails. Something in a quiet corner where you don’t need to speak to anyone. I know you didn’t go to GDC to answer emails, but if you don’t conserve your energy then you’ll underperform at any networking you do.
6. Practice smiling!
Because this is draining, there is a tendency for the face to drop and turn into a bit of a scowl. So practice smiling before you go and remind yourself to do it as you meet someone, and throughout the conversation.
7. Practice the close
It’s the same with the opening, knowing how to finish a conversation can be difficult. So write it down and practice. Know where you want the relationship to go afterwards, and finish with that. Try something like “well it’s been lovely to meet you, I’ll add you on twitter/I’ll email that information across/get in touch once you’ve spoken to X”. And then give them your business card. Get their email address or twitter handle so you can start to network with them online, where you’re more comfortable. And if you’re stuck talking to someone who isn’t going to be of business benefit to you, or just isn’t the best use of your time, use this close early.
So overall don’t worry! Networking doesn’t need to be awful if you prepare for it properly. But whatever you do, don’t just wander into a room full of people without knowing what you’re going to say.