I am an introvert. As a freelance developer, that works out well for me (mostly). It allows me to work from my home office with little to no contact with the majority of mankind for days on end. But as a freelancer, I also recognize that I have to get out and meet people in order to find new work.
A little over a year ago, I was invited to a BNI networking event. I thought it would be the same thing I’ve seen at any large gathering of people: people gathering to those they already know, new people getting ignored, uninteresting small talk, etc.
I was wrong.
From the moment I stepped through the door, I was greeted with a dozen hands thrust out to shake mine, people asking me my name, what I did, where I was located, then telling me their name, telling me what they did, wanting to know my pitch, telling me theirs, asking me if I was a member, if I wanted to be a member.
It was too much.
As soon as I could, I got out of the room and into a hallway, and called my wife. Yes, I wanted to talk to her, but at that moment, I also needed an excuse to escape and focus on one person. I slipped back into the room once the meeting had officially started, and counted the minutes until I could leave.
Since then, I’ve been to a number of other networking events. Each event had its own characteristics and quirks, and I’ve learned more about networking from each event I’ve attended.
Tip #1 :: No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition
Expectations are everything, and we enter in to every situation with at least some sort of preconceived idea of what is going to happen. Under normal circumstances, being a little off about what to expect isn’t a problem, but when your expectations are completely wrong, as mine were at the BNI event (and my 10th grade Geometry class), it can be difficult to recover from.
Knowing this about myself, I find it helpful to do a little pre-networking research. Not a lot, but just enough to have a better grasp of what to expect. Here are some of the things I look for:
- Setting :: Where is the event taking place?Is it a bar or restaurant? A business? On a college campus?
- Size :: How many people are expected to attend? This is an important one for me.
- Format ::
- Is this a presentation plus networking event?
- Is it just networking?
- Is there a structure to the event?
- Topic :: Is there an overriding theme to the event?
- People-group :: Is the event specific to a particular profession or more generalized?
Tip #2 :: What is Your Quest?
“Why are you going to this event?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? Obviously you’re going there to increase your network and meet people, but really, to what end?
Are you looking to make a sale? To find someone to partner with? Are you looking for investors, or employees? Are you going just to practice networking (don’t laugh)?
Having a purpose in going to an event can 1) help determine if you should even go; 2) help determine if the event in question is going to help meet that goal; and 3) keep you on track while you are at the event.
If you don’t have a purpose in going to a networking event, you probably shouldn’t be going.
Tip #3 :: Are you the Judean People’s Front?
Okay, so you know where the event is going to be and what it’s going to be like, and you have a purpose in going, the last thing you need to know is who to talk to. If you’ve figured out why you are going to the event, this part should direct you to the people you should look for.
As an example, if I go to a networking event and my goal is to find a new client, I’m not going to spend a lot of time speaking with other freelancers, except to find out if they are looking to offload a client. Instead, I’m going to target IT decision makers in the markets I’m looking to get into.
Simple, right? But as introverts, it’s a lot easier to gravitate to those people we know, and to corners we feel safe in. Sometimes, you just have to embrace the suck and talk to people.
So based on your purpose for going to the event, who are the people who would best help you meet your goals?
Bonus Tip :: Why Did You Say “Good Morning”?
Okay, last point. Most networking events - thankfully - last less than three hours. That means you have that much time to acclimate yourself to the environment, figure out how to meet your goals, and then find the people you need to meet. The last thing you need to do is waste the time with small talk.
I don’t care what the Bene Gesserit say, small talk, not fear, is the mind-killer.We fall in to the trap of small talk because it’s safe and it’s comfortable, but it’s also completely forgettable. The point of networking is to connect with people. If your conversation is forgettable, what value is the connection?
So what do you talk about? I like to use some of the following questions and roll on from there:
- Why are you here and what kinds of people are you looking to connect with?
- You will probably want to ask that less directly. The point is just to find out if there is potential value in the connection.
- What do you do? It’s cliche and small talky, but it has to be asked.
- What is your favorite part about what you do?
- I ask this solely to ensure there is a positive experience to the time. Well, that, and it’s usually fun to see people get excited about their work/family/etc.
- Note: I don’t ask what their least favorite part is
- What are some of the struggles you are currently facing in your work?
- This isn’t asking what they don’t like.
- This is discovering if you can fix their problems.
- and so on…
As far as networking goes, I usually prefer meeting people for coffee or lunch. It fits my temperament, it’s less intense, and it generally makes for a better conversation. That’s the advice most “networking for introverts” articles provide. While more intimate types of networking fits the introverts’ personality, it doesn’t address the problem of what to do if you’ve managed to stumble into a larger event, which is to say, find out what to expect, figure out your purpose, know who you want to meet, and avoid small talk.
If all else fails, you can always hide out in the hallway and talk to your wife on the phone.