As a community manager, my daily tasks involve many social interactions with our freelance editors, such as onboarding new community members and bringing the community together for social events. I’ve used the word ‘community’ three times in one sentence describing my job – so you might be surprised to hear that I call myself an introvert.
Contrary to the perception many have, being an introvert doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy social interactions or that I’m shy, but that social interactions and new environments take more energy from me than from an extrovert. This means I usually find myself very content but extremely exhausted after hosting an event.
Networking events, however, regularly make me feel out-of-place and overwhelmed. After I started attending events specifically for freelancers, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I’m not alone in this feeling – many freelancers are introverts.
We work well in the peaceful silence of our home and don’t mind not talking for a whole day. Freelancing and introversion is a match made in heaven, you would think. That is until you realize that freelancers also need to rely on their social network to advance in their careers, especially in the competitive gig economy.
Given that we introverts are wired with increased sensitivity to our environment, it’s not surprising that attending crowded social events can seem like a dreadful, anxiety-inducing task. However, the truth is that if no one knows who you are and what skills you have to offer, then you will have a tough time growing your freelance business. Beyond that, networking with peers can also provide valuable feedback and inspiration that no one will take the time to offer you unless you put yourself out there.
In this article, I want to convince you (and myself), that networking doesn’t have to be painful. I’ll share some tips for how to make beneficial connections while honoring your own authenticity, without having to put on your extrovert mask.
Have a positive mindset
Alright, let’s not kid ourselves here. Thinking about networking evokes about as much enthusiasm in me as removing the hairball that has collected in my shower drain over the past two years. But the difference between the two is that with networking if you do it with a negative mindset, it’s best not do it at all. If you cross your arms and critically observe everyone from a distance, you won’t give off a very approachable vibe.
By having a positive mindset and expressing that outwardly with a smile, you invite others to start a conversation with you – and perhaps you’ll learn from someone interesting. When I went to my first networking event, I thought the last thing I wanted to do was socialize with strangers and pretend to smile. But I learned that if I push myself to have a positive attitude at the start, I find that I actually enjoy these kinds of events.
Prepare a game plan
‘Participation is everything’ might be a good motto for your charity run, but not for networking. It’s a strategic activity: you’re there to talk to the right people and win opportunities.
Coming prepared with questions and thinking about who you would like to speak to is good advice for everyone who wants to make the most of an opportunity (and your €600 conference ticket). As an introvert, being prepared in social situations gives me more sense of control and prevents my awkward side from taking over.
Shifting the focus from you to others by asking questions will not only make it easier for you to gain control over the situation but will also likely win people over, which brings me to my next point.
Use your introversion to your advantage
In the business world, we idealize outgoing and alpha-type personalities and often see introversion as disadvantageous and flawed. By asking the other person questions and genuinely showing interest in their answers, you turn your supposed flaw into an advantage and use the fact that people love talking about themselves to your benefit.
This way, instead of using networking events to enjoy the spotlight, introverts can more easily take advantage of opportunities to learn from others and build meaningful connections. Personally, I enjoy focusing on few but deeper conversations, which also allows me to move away from the noisy crowd of an event. If you want to avoid noisy crowds altogether, you might want to read about my next strategy.
Instead of attending large networking events and struggling with sensory overload, focusing on 1:1 networking can feel more authentic and allow you to enjoy more personal and less strenuous interactions.
While attending networking events brings the possibility to meet professionals completely outside of your network, you must be willing to leave your comfort zone and purposely mingle with people who are different from you. If this is not the case, networking 1:1 might be the better option, according to Burkus’s argument in a Harvard Business Review article:
I reviewed dozens of studies on networking for my latest book, and the overall implications are that these events don’t live up to their billing. Most of us, when put into a situation where the only goal is to meet new people, default to staying inside of our comfort zones. That means talking to people we know… or at the very least people who are similar to us. That means most networking events are doomed from the start, by their very design.
By suggesting coffee dates with contacts either in person or on Linkedin or asking colleagues and friends to connect you with people outside of your network, you can focus on interactions that you are genuinely interested in.
Use an extrovert as your secret weapon
Partnering up with extrovert friends or colleagues to go to events means that they are likely to break the ice for you, giving you an opportunity to continue the conversation. For many of us, this is not only a networking strategy but also a life strategy.
While extroverted friends or colleagues are a great stepping stone to make connections, however, not leaving someone’s side throughout the whole event will have the opposite effect. Instead of using a networking opportunity for your own advantage, you will then experience it through someone else’s lenses and listen to people who might only be interesting for them.
Perhaps the most important thing is to remember that you’re not the only introverted person in a room: it’s estimated that around half of the population are introverts. In fact, realizing this and socializing with introverts like me has made networking easier and even enjoyable for me.
Do you have any positive networking stories or survival tips to share? I’d love to hear them!