Going to conferences as a student was exciting, but it was always tinged with fear at the thought of networking. It was easy to hang out with the other students, but we all knew we should be off talking to people and making connections. That was how you got ahead in science: make an impression, develop a collaboration, get a job, secure funding. Networking was the thing that got you there, and as a shy introvert it didn’t come naturally to me.
Looking back now, I guess I figured it out. In my science career most of my positions were found through connections. Some of those connections were people I met at conferences. So what’s the trick to networking successfully as an introvert? Here are my tips:
- Know your strengths and work to them, not against them. Don’t try and be an extrovert if you’re not. If you are at your best in deep conversation, seek out opportunities to connect to people in that way. If you’re happiest listening, prepare a few open ended questions in advance and try them out on someone who loves to talk. Pace yourself at a crowded event, and take breaks to recharge. You may discover pockets of other introverts hiding in the corners you can talk to.
- Drop the word networking – it loads up the pressure as something you have to do to get ahead. Instead focus on the fun of connecting with others and getting to know their story. Making an authentic connection is the key, then keep in touch. This will lead to long term relationships that develop opportunities. Trying to fake it and ‘sell’ yourself with an elevator pitch will not.
- Don’t aim too high. We all know the extrovert at the conference who ends up chatting to the key note speaker and heading off to dinner with the senior scientists. Nothing is guaranteed to make the introverts feel more of a failure as we end up at the boring table at the conference dinner and leave early while everyone else is dancing. Take the pressure off, and set a more manageable goal for yourself. Challenge yourself to start at least two conversations. If it’s a real struggle, notice who in the room looks more uncomfortable than you and open a conversation with them about how hard networking can be. Offer them your best tip. They’ll be grateful, and you never know they may just be a fascinating person to get to know. As a reward, give yourself a break away from the crowd to recharge.
- Congratulate yourself on your successes and don’t compare yourself to those around you. If asking one question in a meeting is a big deal for you, challenge yourself, prepare and go for it. Then see it as a win given the fact that your heart was pounding and your brain freezes under stress. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on how many questions others ask. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses.
- Find an ally so you can encourage each other to meet more people. It could be someone you bonded with in the lunch queue, or the fellow introvert you shared a networking tip with. You could make it a game, make a list and challenge each other to talk to everyone on it.
- Help those around you to network. Once you’re in a conversation you might notice others lurking on the edges hoping to join in. We’ve all been in that position, so give them a break and bring them into the conversation. Don’t forget to make introductions.
- Make peace with discomfort. Have you ever hit a flat spot at an event where it feels like everyone else is chatting away, and you feel left out? Your first instinct is to get out of there, but just think of the interesting people you might miss out on meeting. Instead challenge yourself to stick it out, despite the discomfort. Think of all the tactics you could use – cruise the room, grab a drink, go to the bathroom. Keep an eye out for a conversation you could join, or someone else on their own. Bump into them if necessary and apologize for spilling their drink! Hey, it will sure start a conversation, if you can overcome the desire to run away.
- Work on your unhelpful mental habits. Practice noticing when you fall into worrying about yourself and how others see you, and try shifting your attention to someone else. What’s going on for them? What are they interested in? What do they think about the presentations, food or venue? See if you can find something to complement them on, and open a conversation that way. When your mind slips back into self obsession, gently guide it back to focusing on others. Rumination is a mental habit that can be retrained with practice – it’s not a personal failing so make sure you stay away from self criticism.
Still don’t believe me that networking can be fun? The main thing is to keep in mind that probably half the room is as uncomfortable with networking as you are, and everyone feels insecure – some are just better at hiding it. Unfortunately it’s the extroverts we hear most about, so we tend to judge ourselves against their behaviour.
If you can work to your strengths, reward your successes and relax, networking will start to feel more natural. You may just meet your next employer, or your new best friend.