A week ago, I attended a business mixer sponsored by the Portland Business Journal, and was immediately reminded about something.
As I walked into the crowded room of about 200 professionals, I remembered that keeping up the art of networking requires you to keep working at it. Like exercising a muscle, you need to keep flexing it in order to keep it in shape.
Not that I have any excuse… I have been (ahem) a little negligent myself lately in getting out into true networking situations where I don’t know anyone. A heavy client load and multiple projects have kept my time constrained to running from appointment to appointment, with no time (or energy) to commit to going to any after-hours networking events. I’ve been too exhausted.
But that is no excuse.
I realized it had been awhile since the last networking event that I had attended, and silently resolved to get myself back out there.
So as I entered that room, I suddenly realized how flabby my networking muscle was. And I’ll admit it: I was scared since I knew a total of two people out of that crowd.
Why was I scared?
Because deep down, I am actually a horrifically shy person. And when anyone who is shy is thrust into a setting where it is densely packed and they don’t really know anyone, the natural instinct is to clam up and find a corner of the room for shelter.
It was all I could do to force myself into the heaving crowd. But I did it.
When people reveal to me that they are shy or have a hard time networking, I know that pain… personally. But you CAN get past it and it can open up new doors in ways you couldn’t have imagined.
During the event, I pushed myself past the shyness envelope, made eye contact with strangers, and stuck out my hand to say hello. I met a lot of people that night through the power of networking.
One gentleman I met was interested in resume writing services for himself (he contacted me later to follow up- a good sign); another was slipping past a door I was standing near and I jokingly said, “In order to pass, you need to introduce yourself.” Turns out he was an executive coach and after chatting, we set up a meeting the very next day to figure out how we could refer business to each other.
And a client of mine (one of the two people I knew at the event) was chatting with another gentleman to whom she introduced me… turns out he was involved with a workforce board and we had a lot to discuss. Since then, we have met in person over coffee and shared ideas over email.
So if you say that you are shy and that is the reason why you aren’t good at networking, that is a self-imposed barrier you have put up in front of yourself. Yes, it can be uncomfortable. But here are a few quick tips for you to get through that initial awkward conversational stage and transform the people that you meet at events into powerful contacts in your network:
1) Be fearless. Walk up, stick out your hand, introduce yourself, ask them about what they do, then shut up. People love to talk about themselves. So let them. Being quiet means you don’t have to come up with things to talk about and you can take their conversational lead!
2) Be well-read. Keeping up with current events and business trends gives you a treasure trove to draw from in terms of conversational topics.
3) Initiate a call to action. If you want to learn more, there’s only so much you can chat about comfortably in a crowded room. Suggest to meet the person over coffee in a less busy setting. You’ll both be more relaxed and the ideas can flow more freely.
4) Follow up in 24 hours. Don’t shove the person’s card in your drawer and call it good. That’s not networking. That’s called disposing of your contacts (I am not talking about the kind you stick in your eyes). Email messages are good, but even a nice little hand-written note can lend some distinction to your thoughtfulness.
5) If the conversation isn’t working out very well, release the person. You can always excuse yourself if they have lost interest or there isn’t any rapport building. (Or if they are looking over your shoulder!) Say, “Well, it was nice meeting you and we should both probably mingle a little more… thanks again for chatting!” and then let them go. Sometimes, shy people have a habit of clinging to people that they are able to talk to and then never letting them go. Don’t be one of those networkers! The purpose is to meet as many people as you can.
Don’t let yourself become your own worst obstacle to networking. Get out there, and get a networking workout… the more you do it, the easier it will become!