I've been a consultant and entrepreneur for over two decades and networking has undoubtedly been the key to my success. Ironically, I test off the charts as an introvert. And while I have approached networking differently than a natural extrovert, I've found ways to be extremely effective in these social situations.
Networking is critical to most professional careers. If you're in a sales or business development role, networking is central to your ability to develop relationships and leads. But even if your primary responsibility is not lead generation, networking will have a significant impact on your success.
Networks give you access to information, resources, knowledge, and most importantly, talent. One of the best ways to find candidates for open positions is your professional network. And when you need freelancers or service providers, your network can provide you with names and recommendations.
There are many ways to network, but the most common and often most productive is the tried and true networking event. This could be a one off event some evening after work or a cocktail hour at a longer conference or industry gathering. Either way, these types of situations provide a good opportunity to meet many people in a short amount of time, if you approach it correctly.
Here are the strategies I've developed over the years and the ones I coach my clients on when they want to make the most of an event.
1. Set a specific goal to achieve.
As an introvert, I don't naturally work a room. I'd rather find someone interesting and sit in the corner and talk. To motivate me, I set a reasonable goal to kick start me into meeting people. It could be as simple collecting 20 business cards or meeting three of the speakers. The goal gives me purpose and helps me make decisions and take actions.
2. Prepare yourself mentally and physically.
I suggest that introverted people prepare both mentally and physically for the event. If I've been at work or conference proceeding all day and then head straight to a happy hour, I run out of steam quickly. Instead, I'll sneak in a workout, go for a long walk, or just find a quiet corner and grab some down time. By "pre-charging" for big social events, I give myself the energy I need to be successful at them.
3. Have a few opening lines ready.
Starting a conversation can be difficult in many social situations. Fortunately, events come with some context that make openings a little easier to develop. I like to have 3-5 general open-ended questions in my back pocket that are specific to the situation. "What did you think of so-and-so's talk?" or "Did you come to last year's event?" are great examples of openers that can kick-start the conversation.
4. Work the room to meet new people.
Too many times I see people meeting someone early in the event and then speaking with him or her the entire time. Networking events are great opportunities to meet lots of new people. Focus on moving through three steps: building rapport, making a connection, and setting a reason to follow up (my go to is to send them an article). I generally spend between 3-5 minutes per person to get these. Once I set a reason to follow up with them after the event, I move on to meet someone new.
5. Give yourself a break.
If you're an introvert, you'll need some downtime. If an event is more than two hours, I often plan a 10-15 minute break about half way. I might call and check in with my kids or just find a place to relax for bit. Be sure to set a specific time for when you'll jump back in so you don't convince yourself to call it a day.
6. Follow up on your commitments.
After the event, be sure to follow up with everyone and mention the items you agreed to. I try to do this by the end of the day or first thing the next day. You don't need to do the follow up itself, but definitely touch base with them and set expectations for the follow up you mentioned in the conversation. If I promised to send them an article, my email would just tell them I'll send it to them by the end of the week or by some date. Many times this is a better approach since it allows me to email them again which, in turn, builds more connection.
Just because you're not a natural extrovert doesn't mean you can't handle a social event like a networking pro. In fact, by using these techniques, you can often get more accomplished in less time than someone who can close the bar. You'll also feel much better the next morning.