Networking for introverts

I’m sure that many of my friends would describe me as being outgoing, and even outspoken. I’ve spoken at a number of SQL Saturdays, and (as a musician), I’ve performed in front of audiences (I’ve long since lost my fear of performing int front of a crowd).

So it might surprise some of you when I say that I can sometimes be an introvert.

It mostly depends on the situation. When I’m doing a presentation, I’m expected to be doing the talking, and I can hold my own. When I’m discussing a topic that I enjoy, such as baseball, college sports, music, movies, or CrossFit, I can talk your ear off. When I’m among friends, I can converse for hours.

However, I wasn’t always like this, and there are times when I can revert back. When I’m in a room full of people that I don’t know, I can just as easily be the person sitting off the in the corner all by himself. In years past, especially during my adolescent years (and even for a few years after college), I had trouble with mingling with people and breaking the ice.

So for those of you who consider yourselves introverts, I feel your pain. I get it.

I also want to tell you that if you want to network but have trouble doing so, there’s hope. If you’re shy or introverted, it is possible for you to network with other people.

Let me start by saying something that you probably don’t want to hear: it will likely take some effort on your part. I realize that that can be a scary thing, and it will likely make you uncomfortable. Experiencing some discomfort is a part of growing and making yourself better. As I’ve written before, getting ahead will take some degree of discomfort.

That said, you don’t have to fear being uncomfortable. You don’t have to dive headfirst into the pool without learning how to swim. The process (as any) can be done in a number of small steps.

Let’s start by talking about initiating contact — breaking the ice. This is probably the most difficult — and scariest — part of networking. Once you’ve broken the ice, the rest goes downhill. But it’s easier said than done. So how do you start the conversation?

I’ll start with one of the simplest ways: say “hi!” It might not seem like much, but by using this simple little word, you’ve just broken the ice. You’ve initiated contact. Once you’ve said that, you can build from it and connect. Some suggestions for following up: “How are you?”, “How do you like this event?”, “What do you do?”, “Where are you from?”, and so on.

I do want to point something out regarding these followup statements. You might notice that they all end with a question mark. They ask questions geared at getting to know the other person. If you show interest in the other person, chances are that (s)he will be more likely to engage you. Dale Carnegie (of How To Win Friends and Influence People fame) had a great many quotes about how to engage people. Many of them involve showing interest in the other person.

That said, be careful not to be too personal, deep, or overbearing. Instead of making other people interested, you might end up driving them away. Bear in mind that we’re not talking about how to pick up people of the opposite sex (or the same sex, if that’s what you’re into) at a bar; we’re talking about professional networking. Granted, these approaches will likely work in social situations, but that’s not the point of this article.

Finding some type of common ground to talk about will likely go a long way. If you’re attending some kind of event (SQL Saturday, a class, your kid’s concert or Little League game, etc.), discussing the event in front of you is a natural place to start. If you’re attending the same event, chances are that you’re there for similar reasons, so that makes for something of mutual interest to discuss.

I often find that a fun or neutral topic makes good fodder for conversation. (Note: “neutral” is a key word — more about that in a moment.) For example, I’m a sports fan, and although not everyone is into sports, I usually find that sports is one of the most universally beloved topics that people like to talk about. Whether you’re into baseball, football, basketball, soccer, cricket, rugby, or underwater hockey (yes, that really is a thing — I looked), sports is usually a good, somewhat neutral topic to discuss. Even if the other person is an opposing fan, it could make for fun conversation. I’m a Yankee fan, and I get into the best conversations with Red Sox fans.

I said that “neutral” is a key word. There are some hot-button topics that are verboten and should not be broached. Probably the number one topic to avoid is politics (race and religion are likely a close second). Personally, I absolutely despise politics, and will not talk about them. If you want a sure-fire way to get me aggravated, start talking politics with me. A conversation about politics will drive me away and make me want to avoid you, not engage you. There are some subjects that make me say “get the hell away from me,” and that’s at the top of my list. You’ve been warned. (And, for the record, if you really must know where I stand, I’m a registered Democrat, and I consider myself a left-leaning moderate.)

Bottom line: if a topic is controversial, stay away from it. Don’t even bring it up.

I’ve talked about things you can do to break the ice. But what about a few ways for someone to break the ice with you?

How about clothing? I wrote an article a while back that talks about how what you wear can initiate networking. I often wear T-shirts, sweatshirts, and caps that depict my favorite sports teams, interests, fraternity, and my alma mater. I’ve sometimes been called a “walking billboard.” But in many cases, it’s enough to encourage conversation. Your own clothing can often be a conversation piece.

Being cognizant of your body language can also be helpful. Your own actions often speak louder than what you actually say. Be mindful of smiling, crossing your arms, or making eye contact. Sometimes, it could be the difference between initiating a networking contact and remaining a fly on the wall.

These days, even if you’re uncomfortable with meeting people face-to-face, you have the option of networking online. With the advent of social media, even introverted people can often break the ice online.

And as I previously wrote, it’s also helpful to have business cards with you, ready to be handed out.

So if you feel socially awkward and are uncomfortable with networking, be aware that you are capable of joining the conversation. It might take a little time and practice, but even people who are shy or introverted are capable of networking.