I hate networking events. I hate them with the fire of many suns. I know people organize them with the best of intentions – connect people with similar business interests in the hope that jobs will be found, partnerships will be made, and LinkedIn will continue to serve a purpose. But each time I attend these things, it feels like a gathering of aggressively opportunistic egoists making disingenuous connections in hopes that the next hand they shake will pull them up to the next rung on the social ladder.
I’m probably not being fair. I know there are a lot of people who are just naturally good at these things. I’m just an awkward introvert. I don’t like meeting new people. I don’t like talking about my accomplishments. I don’t like feigning interest in people and things that bore me. I’m clumsy with both words and physical objects. And I feel weird making connections based solely upon how my new acquaintance and I can best serve each other’s needs in the future.
Regardless of my distaste for the process, networking is integral to my career. Lucky for me (and you, since I’m giving you advice), I’ve received excellent guidance from mentors. And I’ve tempered that guidance with what I’ve picked up from sheer, sometimes harrowing experience (there are some things they just don’t tell you in job hunting workshops). I’ve gotten pretty good at this. I’m happy to share my key findings with you.
- If self-promotion doesn’t come naturally, prepare a 20-second introduction about yourself. This can include your school, class year, company, title and a brief overview of what you do or what you may be looking for. Rehearse this in the mirror it feels completely natural. Practice saying it with confidence. It sounds cheesy, but if you aren’t sold on yourself, nobody else will be either.
- I hate awkward silences. I’m also terrible at filling them with conversation about socially appropriate and widely-known topics. (Note: the deeper meaning of “The Watchmen” doesn’t fall into either category. I learned that one the hard way.) Skim the news of the day beforehand and take note of non-inflammatory topics like sports, entertainment and fun news features. You’ll have conversation filler that makes you look current and intelligent without having to talk about yourself.
- Once you are at a networking event, don’t go overboard with the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Nerves can make you flustered and clumsy, so the less moving pieces, the better. That being said…
- If you can manage to have one cocktail in hand without spilling, do so and sip it slowly. The alcohol might help you loosen up. The glass also gives you something to do with your hands. And you can always pretend to sip if someone says something pompous and obnoxious and you can’t keep a straight face.
- There’s also the option of forgoing networking events altogether. After all, networking isn’t something that only happens in hotel meeting halls after a convention. Classmates, co-workers, friends of friends, friends of family, all have the potential to be great contacts for you. If you interface with these people regularly, you need only ask them for coffee at some point to establish a deeper connection. If you hear about someone interesting, you need only ask for an introduction. This is my preferred way of networking. You only have to focus on one person at a time, so it’s less pressure. However, the connections you make have more substance. I’ve personally secured two killer internships and three full-time jobs from connections made this way.
- Once you establish your connection, you’ll have to meet to get to know each other better. Opt for coffee. It’s easy and inexpensive. Unlike meetings over lunch or dinner, it’s not awkward trying to talk while consuming. And it doesn’t take long to finish, in case you run out of things to discuss and would like to wrap things up.
- This has nothing to do with being introverted, and I know we’ve covered this on HelloGiggles before; but it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning. Send a hand-written thank you note. Hand-written notes are sweet and personal. Plus, the U.S. Postal Service will very much appreciate your business. My secret weapon? A card that is either really pretty or very distinct to your conversation. The recipient won’t forget it. And if you’re very lucky, he or she will think it’s too pretty to throw away. Your card will be there hanging on the bulletin board or sitting on the desk as a constant reminder of your intelligence, thoughtfulness and impeccable taste in stationery.
For the shy and the introverted, networking can be a challenge in theory. But with confidence, practice and proper strategy, it doesn’t have to be as challenging in practice. And honestly, if you really can’t get yourself to love the process, you’ll still be okay. I’d like to think a career is defined by the choices and connections you make, not the ones you didn’t. I’m sure you can make do with the social circles you have. And if all else fails, cross your fingers for the next billion dollar jackpot. For all you know, it could be you!*
*Disclaimer: It’s probably not going to be you.
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