Introversion is a popular topic lately, and I appreciate that since I am an introvert. When I started down the business and leadership track, I realized that I had to disregard my natural introverted tendencies and be willing to jump into networking events. These events exhausted me and I dreaded lengthy work trips where I was expected to attend more than two events in a single week.
Part of this dread stemmed from the amount of energy I had to put out in order to come across as engaged. This is not to say that I lack confidence, but rather that my nature is to be more reserved. The other contributor to my dread was small talk. I have never enjoyed and have always avoided small talk. I am much more comfortable sitting alone than I am chitchatting with strangers. In my personal life, I can get away with this, but that doesn’t cut it in professional settings.
During the last two years, I have tackled my aversion to networking head on and can happily say that I now have a strategy that makes these occasions more enjoyable and productive.
Firstly, to cover the issue of decreased energy, I started drinking more coffee. That is laughably obvious, but I didn’t do this before. Instead, I would have a cocktail to loosen myself up. In reality it did the opposite. While a cocktail helps me to be more boisterous with friends and family, at work gatherings it left me feeling even more reserved since I was concerned about how I was coming across. Now I drink little alcohol and mostly stick to caffeinated soda or coffee – which also gets me through the next day.
Secondly, how to tackle small talk? I handle this in two ways.
To begin with, I make an effort to define what I want to get out of the event. I make a list of the topics I’m interested in, people I want to meet and questions I want answered. For example, before my last technology seminar, I listed out the products and use cases I was interested in learning more about. During a recent women’s leadership conference, my list included things like meeting executive level IT leaders and hearing about their career paths as well as practical ideas for integrating work and home life (as a funny aside the most prudent feedback I got was to “save my marriage and get a housekeeper!”) I’m not sure why it works, but I can honestly say that since I started these lists I have found myself in conversations with the exact people who can give me the information and insights I am looking for.
The second thing I do is minimize the “stranger” factor. I love feeling connected with another person. Once I can make a personal connection, it is easier to get inquisitive and the conversation quickly progresses from small talk into something with depth. The fastest way for me to make that connection is to ask open ended questions about the person’s career and what they hope to get out of the event we are both attending.
Next, I google people. If it’s a small gathering and I know who the attendees will be, I research them. For instance, I had an opportunity to meet a member of my company’s board of directors. I work for a big company so I knew this was a fantastic opportunity. A quick google search gave me career highlights for this person, information on other boards she is a member of and videos of some of her speeches. I was honored to meet her and I believe my awareness on her background made me more comfortable around her and it allowed me to prepare relevant questions should the opportunity arise. I look at it like I am presenting myself, and one of the first things we learn in a public speaking course is to know the audience.
So there you have it. These straightforward tips helped me go from a wallflower to an engaged contributor at networking events. The final thing I would add is a saying I often use, and which helps me when I feel I’m in the presence of high caliber people: I am no better than anyone else, just as I am not less.
I hope these tips are useful to you, and please feel free to share any ways you have made network events more useful to you.