It’s hard out there for an introvert—especially when it comes to working a room. For the less outgoing, “attending a networking event can be like diving into a mosh pit,” says Nancy Ancowitz, business communication coach and author of Self-Promotion for Introverts. “It’s downright scary.”
As many as 50% of Americans are introverts, according to Susan Cain, author of the 2012 best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts. While conventional wisdom holds that shy types are at a disadvantage in the business world, there are some lesser-known benefits to being among the more reserved. Research by Wharton management professor Adam Grant, for example, found that introverts are more effective leaders, and a recent Cambridge University study found they’re more adaptable in the workplace than their extroverted colleagues.
But that knowledge doesn’t necessarily help you when you’re hugging the wall at your next conference or cocktail reception. Follow these tips to nail a networking event.
Adjust your mindset. If just hearing the word “networking” makes you gulp, reframe your approach, says Carol Linden, author of The Job Seekers Guide for Extraverts and Introverts. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, focus on your goal, which is to make two or three meaningful connections. Once you’ve done so, give yourself permission to leave. “If you overstay, you’re going to get burnt out, and you’ll be less motivated to go to networking events in the future,” Linden says.
Contact people in advance. Get a list of the attendees beforehand and determine the people you want to meet. Business communication coach Patrick Donadio recommends introducing yourself via email ahead of the event and explaining why you want to connect. (“I read your book and saw you’re attending the conference. I’d love to get together during the lunch break and learn more about your research.”) For ice breakers, browse their social media feeds to find shared interests, which you can use as talking points in person.
Bring a wingman. Need a confidence booster? Get a co-worker to join you at the event. “Having a conference buddy can help keep you grounded,” says Pete Mosley, author of The Art of Shouting Quietly: A guide to self promotion for introverts and other quiet souls. Your colleague also may be able to use his or her connections to make an introduction. One note of caution: You can take breaks together to recharge, but avoid clinging too closely to the person or you’ll defeat the purpose of networking.
Go behind the scenes. Get access to key players by helping to organize or volunteering at the event. Checking in attendees, for example, allows you to meet with your target people when they walk in the door. To score face time with an industry influencer, “be the person who picks up the keynote speaker at the airport,” advises Linden.
Keep the focus on them. “Networking is about building relationships, not selling yourself,” says Mosley. Read: You don’t need to deliver an elevator pitch touting your achievements. Get the conversation rolling with a casual starter (“That was a great lecture. What did you think of it?”), then let the other person do most of the talking.
“Introverts are natural listeners,” says Wendy Gelberg, job search coach at JVS CareerSolution in Boston and author of The Successful Introvert: How to Enhance Your Job Search and Advance Your Career. Ask open-ended questions: “I see your company launched a new product. Did you work on it?”
Exit strategically. Close the conversation by setting a time to meet in the future. (“It was great talking with you. I’d love get together soon for lunch to continue our conversation.”) Don’t forget to exchange business cards, and take short notes on theirs about what you talked about so that you can send a meaningful follow-up email, says Donadio; if the person doesn’t have a card, ask to connect on LinkedIn.
Practice, practice, practice. As an introvert, it’s not in your nature to love large crowds—and that’s okay. Even if you do all of the above, you’re never going to feel completely comfortable schmoozing at an industry conference. But you can make the process less stressful by attending networking events on a regular basis, Mosley says. You can also flex your communication skills back at the office, Donadio suggests, by, for instance, striking up conversation with new colleagues in the break room.