Imagine yourself in a large conference hall at a generic chain hotel packed with hundreds of mid-career professionals wearing nametags. Herds of anxious-looking people mill about snack tables loaded with cheap crackers and cheese. Others are circulating through a maze of card tables where men and women in business casual attire have set out pamphlets and corporate-branded pens.
Your job, over the course of the next two hours, is to make a positive and lasting impression on as many of these people as possible. And maybe even find yourself a new job. Nauseated yet?
Networking is the art and science of building professional relationships, but few of us are naturals at it. There are many excellent reasons to network: to expand your client base, develop business partnerships, find a better job or find some better workers. The more people you meet, the larger your network and the greater the odds of finding the best customers, partners, employers or employees. At least that's the theory.
But for some of us, namely the many adults who identify themselves as introverts, networking events can feel like the first day of school all over again. "Just smile and introduce yourself!" your mom used to say. Yeah, right. Introverts shine in thoughtful, one-on-one conversations, not selling themselves to complete strangers with a snappy "elevator pitch." So how do you develop a strong and effective professional network if you hate networking?
We'll help you out with 10 practical and helpful tips for the networking-averse.
Enhance Your Business Card
Is there anything more boring and instantly forgettable than a business card? Now imagine that you walk away from a networking event with a stack of these things. Are you actually going to go to the trouble of scanning each one into your contacts, or saving them in an old-school Rolodex?
Here's another opportunity for introverts to shine. Who says that the only way to share your information with a networking contact is a boring business card? If you are naturally creative, you can dream up a whole world of business card alternatives.
To get your creative juices flowing, check out this gallery of amazing creations. Our favorites are the personal minted coins and the landscape architect card that sprouts tiny trees when wet. Creative cards provide a marvelous conversation starter and leave a lasting impression. Plus, they're better tactic than wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Ask me about my wildly profitable ideas!"
And job hunters, don't let the back of your business card go to waste. Use that space for a mini-resume or a description of the position you are seeking.
One of the most awkward things about attending a networking event is the complete lack of things to do other than network. If you're not actively talking with someone, your only options are to graze the buffet (if you're lucky enough to see one), make a dozen trips to the bathroom or aimlessly wander the convention space looking for the "right" person to talk with.
But what if you volunteer to work the event? Think about it. You always have something to do — setting up tables and chairs, working the registration table, assisting speakers and presenters, and helping the event organizers — and the networking opportunities come much more naturally [source:Zack].
At the registration desk, you get to have a hundred mini-conversations with attendees. Write down the names of the folks that might merit a longer conversation or follow-up e-mail. You also have a perfect excuse to chat with the event organizers as a volunteer. Ask them about their organization and what they do professionally. It might not turn into an immediate business or job opportunity, but you've made a contact that could come in handy down the road.
If you hate networking, then you probably hate going to parties with large crowds of people. You're not alone. Devora Zack, author of "Networking for People Who Hate Networking," says that introverts thrive in small group conversations, but clam up in crowds. One simple trick for avoiding a networking nightmare is to show up early when there are fewer people [source:Zack].
As an early arriver, you have a chance to engage one-on-one with a few attendees before all of the noise and bustle sets in. You also have the luxury of making the first impression in people's minds before they are drowning in business cards and handshakes. In fact, you might have so many fruitful conversations in the first half hour that you don't have to stick around for the full networking event. Win-win!
Choose a Magic Number
Showing up early is a great idea, but what if you are still terrified by the prospect of introducing yourself to strangers, no matter how small the group? You might be a savvy businessperson, a creative thinker and a hard worker, but nobody will know it if you never open your mouth.
Here's a tip: Set a goal to speak to a specific number of people, and stick to it no matter what [source: Clark]. If you promise yourself that you're going to speak to at least 10 new people at a networking event, don't break your promise. You could make it more entertaining by telling yourself, "I'll meet five people wearing blue and another five carrying large purses or briefcases."
Bribe yourself with an ice cream sundae as a reward. Or bring a friend and make a bet — the one who talks to the fewest people buys dinner. By setting a goal, you have something concrete to work toward. Plus, once you reach the goal, you have a great excuse to leave!
Organize the Event Yourself
On the surface, organizing a networking event seems like a wildly bad idea for a person who hates networking events, but bear with us. One of the big problems with networking of any kind is the power imbalance [source:Clark]. When two strangers strike up a conversation, there is always a subtle jostling for position. Who is the one looking for a job and who is the one hiring? Who is the struggling entrepreneur and who is the established businessperson?
One of the easiest ways to boost your power rating is to be the one in charge [source: Clark]. Instead of approaching contacts yourself, people now have a reason to approach you first. Plus, as the organizer, you have the ability to choose the invitees. You can stack the deck, so to speak, so that everyone in attendance is a potential business partner or employer.
Of course, organizing a successful networking event isn't as simple as sending out an invite on LinkedIn. It helps if you already hold a leadership position with a professional association or civic organization. Failing that, think about friends who own, or perhaps work at a local bar, restaurant, or other gathering place. If you can invite an interesting speaker, that will also generate attendees. Some people will speak for free, especially if they can sell their books or DVDs afterward.
Be Interested, Not Interesting
Networking events can be tough for introverts, because most of us are not natural salespeople, and we think that networking is all about selling yourself. But that's not true. Networking is about building relationships, not "making the sale." A critical part of building any relationship is showing sincere interest in the other party. This is where introverts excel.
If you are a naturally observant and thoughtful person, you are likely an excellent listener. Put those skills to use. When you strike up a conversation, don't attempt to launch into an awkward pitch for your business idea or job skills. Ask the person why they came to the event. And instead of flipping it immediately back to yourself, dig deeper. Ask how they got into their line of work and what they like about it (or don't like). If you feel comfortable, ask about their families or personal lives. This will make an impression.
Once you have formed an actual relationship with a networking contact, it will be much easier for you to talk about yourself and your ideas. They will be interested in you because you were interested in them [source:Zack].
Networking experts are insistent about this one; if you don't follow up, you fail. Most networking gurus say that you should make contact — e-mail, text, phone call — within 48 hours of an initial meeting [source: Clark]. But what does this mean for those of us who are physically repulsed by the networking game? How do we get over our distaste of self-promotion disguised as a thank-you note?
The best way to get over the awkwardness of the follow-up contact is to make it as organic as possible. If you are a good listener, then you will have no problem remembering that Bill is really interested in self-driving cars, Sarah collects vintage Hollywood movie posters, and Hyun is looking for a catchy name for the new iPhone app he's developing. (You can make crib notes on their business cards to jog your memory.)
If you really want to build a networking relationship, don't send a generic "nice to meet you" e-mail. Dig up something that's useful to them, maybe a link to an article about Google's autonomous cars, a rare poster for sale on eBay or a list of 20 app names you thought of on the car ride home. You'll feel like less of a self-promoter and make a lasting impression in the process. And if you get a response, offer to meet them up for coffee.
Use Social Media to Get Face Time
This is a great networking tip if you are looking for a job. Professional networking sites like LinkedIn are terrific for assembling contacts but less effective at building real relationships that might lead to a job offer. For that, you need good old-fashioned face time.
Start by searching your online professional network for people who are working in your desired field or have your desired position. They might be second- or third-degree contacts that require an introduction from your first-degree circle. Once you get the introduction, send a pleasant — not pushy — message that you would love to get together and hear their "story." How did they break into the field? What's been their experience on the job? What advice do they have for someone looking to enter the profession?
If you live in the same town, invite them out for coffee or lunch. If you live far away, set up a phone call or video chat. During your meeting, let them share their story. You don't need to ask if they have an open job as this puts them on the spot and defeats the purpose of this informational session. (Besides, if there is an opening, they will most likely bring it up.) End your meeting by asking for names of other people to contact. Follow up with a thank-you note and if appropriate, include your resume and ask your new contact to keep you in mind for open positions.
Get an Adult Internship
One reason people hate to network is that it feels like a lot of talking and very little doing. A thousand LinkedIn contacts are great, but if you are unemployed, or want to break into a new field, what you really need is practical on-the-job experience. That's why more and more mid-career professionals are seeking out unpaid internships [source: Tahmincioglu].
Let's say you worked 10 years as a life insurance salesperson, but really want to break into professional catering. In the food industry, no one is going to hire you without some experience. But what if you offer yourself as an unpaid, part-time intern? The employer doesn't lose anything in the bargain, and you learn how to prepare shrimp appetizers for a party of 500 [source: Johnson].
It's wise to set a cap on the hours and total duration of your internship. And if you feel like the employer is taking advantage of your generosity, feel free to cut it short. Ideally, by working hard for free, you can put yourself in a great position for the next job opening. At the very least, you've filled a gap in your resume and made a slew of new contacts, all without an ounce of "networking."
If you've lost your job, don't keep that to yourself. Think about all of those Facebook friends you've accumulated over the years. Sure, you might be annoyed by their occasional political rants or inane kitten videos, but one of these people might be the critical connection between you and your next job. Think about it: The people you are closest to will automatically help you if they can. It's the folks you may not ordinarily talk to in person that need a broadcast message.
Before you send out a mass Facebook or e-mail message saying, "I'll do anything!" consider a more strategic approach. People are more likely to take action if they have parameters. Be as specific as possible about the fields and job titles you want to pursue. Saying that you want to work in "organic agriculture" or "vegetarian catering" is much more effective than saying, "I want to work with food." By giving your contacts specific keywords, they can refer you to friends or companies who match those searches. The worst someone can do is ignore you (or defriend you), but you never know who holds the magic ticket to a great job opportunity.
This strategy can also work if you are starting a business – of course in that situation you should already have a clearly defined message (and hopefully a Facebook page for the business that you will invite friends to follow).
For lots more information about job searches and networking, check out the related HowStuffWorks articles on the next page.
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Author's Note: 10 Networking Tips for People Who Hate Networking
The year was 1998 and I was fresh out of college. My dream was to break into the TV comedy writing business, but I was a kid from Pittsburgh whose closest connection to Hollywood was my Blockbuster Video card. With nothing to lose, I moved out to Los Angeles and took a day job as a receptionist at a law firm. In the evenings, I would look up the mailing addresses for every writer and producer at every sitcom on TV. I sent each of them a desperate letter — that was the actual name of the Word file, "desperate letter" — acknowledging my utter lack of industry contacts, but emphasizing my willingness to work any job, no matter how menial, for a foot in the door. I mailed out upward of 400 of these things and got exactly one response. She was a producer for a popular network TV show. I have no idea why she called me in for a conversation — there were no open positions — but we had a great meeting. A few months later, she recommended me for a production assistant spot on a new show, and I got it. The kid from Pittsburgh was on his way. The experience taught me the importance of putting yourself out there, even if it is awkward and potentially fruitless. You never know who you will meet that will change everything.
- Clark, Dorie. "Networking Advice for People Who Hate Networking." CBS MoneyWatch. May 26, 2011. (July 12, 2013) http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-40341781/networking-advice-for-people-who-hate-networking/
- Johnson, Tori. "Job-Hunting? Get Good Experience as an Adult Intern." ABC News. March 10, 2010. (July 12, 2013) http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/JobClub/job-hunting-good-experience-adult-intern/story?id=10056926#.UeA73T78k0N
- Tahmincioglu, Eve. "Working for Free: The Boom in Adult Interns." April 12, 2010. (July 12, 2013) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1977130,00.html
- Zack, Devora; quoted in Bowers, Toni. "Hate networking? Here are some tips." Tech Republic. Oct. 13, 2010. (July 12, 2013) http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/career/hate-networking-here-are-some-tips/2442