Since I’m an introvert, I’ll gear my post towards introverts and how introverts create authentic relationships with people. Fellow introverts: I got your back.
First you should know the things I believe about networking:
Introverts are better connectors
We’re better at creating deep relationships. When we connect with someone, it’s powerful and we’re loyal. We’re selective about who we give our attention to, and we’re more skeptical of smooth talkers. We’d rather have one deep conversation than 20 instances of small talk. We love to help, and we only ask for things when we really need the help.
All of these things aren’t true for every introvert, but as a whole introverts have a real advantage at networking. It’s time we recognized that advantage.
The size of your network matters less than the quality of your relationships
Almost everyone agrees with this in principle. How many of us actually practice it? If you measure your networking success by the number of business cards you got or the amount of email introductions you’ve received, then you’re doing it wrong. I would rather (and I have) leave a convention center to buy one person a beer than spend all night drinking free beers at the evening event.
Find people you genuinely like or admire, and invest heavily in them. Jettison the acquaintances who don’t interest you.
Events are among the worst places to meet people
I met a guy in the locker room at my building this morning. It was the third day in a row I saw him in there, so we started talking about P90X. His name is Rich. I have no idea where he works, but I know his arms are sore as hell today. Rich and I are already more connected than I will ever be with the people behind the business cards on my desk. I’ll probably see Rich tomorrow, too, and we’ll get to know each other a little better.
At events, everyone wants something. You don’t create real connection until you get behind that facade.
Those are my three core mantras when it comes to networking — my manifesto, if you will. Feel free to disagree. Take it up with me in the comments below. Just know that the rest of my answer is predicated on those three. If you don’t like what you see here, you won’t like the rest of this post.
Networking doesn’t come naturally to me.
I was the guy who leaned against the wall at events. I’d pretend to check my phone or maybe make another pass at the refreshment table — anything to not have to talk to someone. I always wondered what it would be like to have a natural conversation with a stranger. What if I could get over the anxiety of meeting a new person, think of interesting things to contribute, and make new connections?
- As a young professional, I knew figuring out a way to start networking was important.
Through a ton of reading and some uncomfortable experimentation, I’ve figured out a system that works for me to meet new people, have interesting conversations, and keep in touch with the people I like. If you struggle with figuring out what to talk about, finding common ground with a stranger, or making a memorable impression then read on.
If you’re a salesman where every interaction must involve talking about yourself, then this material probably isn’t for you. And if you’re an extrovert who has no trouble striking up a conversation with strangers, then you’ll want to look elsewhere for help.
- This post is for introverts interested in a different kind of networking. One that focuses on authentic connections between people.
If you’re ready to play the long game to build a great network, I’ll walk you step by step through how I’ve done it.
My network has landed me new jobs, pay raises, and mentorship. Building a great network pays off in the long term.
Learning these strategies also has short-term benefits. You’ll be able to command attention and respect at meetings. Even with friends, these skills prove useful as you work your way into conversations at parties. You can then take those conversations to another level.
So let’s dive in.
Step 1: Approach anxiety and the psychology of self-promotion
When it came to meeting new people, my biggest enemy was me.
I used to question why someone would ever want to talk to me. I thought there was no way I could compete with the uber-extroverts for the attention of influential, interesting people. At one point, I was ready to write off networking entirely and just stick to the small group of people I already knew.
But once I started approaching people I learned that being a VIP or smooth-talking didn’t matter nearly as much as I thought it did. With a little experimentation, I realized all I needed to connect with anyone was a little curiosity and the courage to start a conversation.
In the end, my problem wasn’t my age, rank, or introversion. My problem was the limiting beliefs I told myself about conversation and networking. A limiting belief is any idea you hold about yourself that, although it isn’t true, limits you just because you believe it’s true. Any time you tell yourself you can’t do something that’s within the realm of possibility, that’s a limiting belief.
For me — and for my readers — I’ve found the following beliefs that hold introverts back from networking:
- “Some people are born extroverts. I’m just not wired to be good at talking to people.”
- “I’m not smart/experienced enough to offer anything to someone more senior than me.”
- “If I try to start a conversation I’ll get embarrassed, or worse, ignored.”
- “People aren’t interested in smart introverts, they want smooth-talking extroverts to sweep them off their feet.”
- “I just have to be myself, and eventually I’ll get noticed for x (a new job, a raise, a promotion, an award, etc)”
- “If I approach somebody, they’ll see through me. They’ll know I’m networking and think I’m phony.”
Maybe you see your own limiting beliefs here, or perhaps you’ve identified other psychological barriers to your networking. That’s a good thing! Once you’ve identified a limiting belief you’re on the road to getting rid of it.
The next step is to think of a time when your limiting belief wasn’t true. I’m sure if you thought hard enough, you could remember a time when you were funny, eloquent, or influential in a conversation. You can think of a time when a conversation with a stranger (even the hotel receptionist or the barista) went well and you felt a connection. See? Your limiting beliefs aren’t always true.
Now that we’re questioning our beliefs, it’s time to experiment. Action is the best way to break through a psychological barrier, and a good way to frame your action is: “This is just a test of my limiting belief. If it doesn’t go well, I’ll test another approach.”
- Questioning and then testing your beliefs is the key to growth.
So here’s what I suggest you do for step one: as you go about your day tomorrow, talk to 5 strangers. You can comment on…
- the weather — “Didn’t know it was going to be this cold today!”
- something you admire — “Wow, I like those shoes!”
- sports — “Did you catch the game last night?”
- movies — “Have you seen the new Star Wars yet?”
What you talk about doesn’t matter. Even if the person merely grunts in response, count it as a successful interaction. Right now, we’re just getting over the anxiety and self-talk that keeps us from approaching strangers.
This sounds easy, but it isn’t. I promise you, though, approaching strangers will teach you some important lessons. It will also expose and then obliterate your limiting beliefs. In the end, you’ll be surprised how willing most people are to have a conversation.
“I thought this was a guide for introverts! Why is his first advice to start talking to more people?!” — I can hear you saying it, and believe me I understand where you’re coming from. Let me point out a few things, though.
- You do not have to have a full conversation with the people you meet. You can say, “Sorry, I gotta run!” at any time and leave the conversation.
- These people are strangers that you will likely never see again. There are no stakes to these conversations.
- Don’t try to talk to 5 people all at once. That would be unnecessarily exhausting for an introvert. Spread your interactions out over the day with alone-time breaks.
- If you don’t learn to approach people, then you never have a chance to have a conversation. Approach is the most basic skill upon which conversations are built.
Over time, you can experiment with your opener. Eventually you might move away from weather, compliments, sports, or movies. However, for now they’ll work wonders. In fact, whole networks can be built on those openers alone.
(Please take the time to do this exercise. The rest of this post is useless to you if you don’t work on your approach anxiety and limiting beliefs first. Bookmark this page and come back if you have to.)
Step 2: How to build rapport and intrigue with strangers
If you complete the approach exercise above you’ll likely be surprised by the results. As an introvert, I found all kinds of mental barriers holding me back. Once I started talking to people, 80% of the difficult part of networking was gone.
So what about that other 20%?
I want to teach you some strategies to make your conversations intriguing. They’re not hard to start using. Almost immediately you’ll see results, but it will take years to perfect your personal stories, questions, and routines. That’s what I love about conversation. Learning a few strategies can change things quickly, but perfecting those strategies is a constant game between you and the people you meet.
Step 2 has two parts. First we’ll look at the questions everyone gets asked, and second we’ll look at the questions WE as introverts should be asking others.
Step 2 — Part 1: Rewriting your usual answers
Let’s start with the basics: the questions you get asked regularly.
Think about it, how many times have you been asked these questions…
- How are you?
- Where are you from?
- What do you do?
- Where did you go to school and what did you study?
If you’re like me, you get asked those questions often. How much time have you spent thinking about your answers?
When someone asks you any of those four questions, what they’re signaling is, “I’m interested in you enough to want to hear a little bit more.” Those basic, ubiquitous questions are your first opportunities to make an impression.
Now don’t get me wrong. When people ask these canned questions, they do not want to hear your life’s story. They are not ready for that yet. What they want (but will never tell you) is to be surprised and pleased by your answer AND have a question returned to them so they can talk about themselves (we’ll talk about returning with a question in a minute).
Knowing these two concepts — surprise & then return with a question — you can begin to formulate responses. Let’s walk through an example.
Imagine someone asks “What do you do?” Compare these responses:
- I’m an accountant
- I do accounting for XYZ firm
- I’m an accountant at XYZ and I sail boats on the weekend
- My background is in accounting, so I keep the money straight at XYZ
- I count the money at XYZ to pay for my sailing habit on the weekends
(Now these are just some possibilities I thought up in a few minutes. If you have more time, you might think up better ones. [Give it a shot in the comments below — I’d love to read ‘em.])
Take a look at the difference between the first answer (boring and non-specific) and the last answer (more intriguing, casual, and personal). It seems pretty clear that the later answers will get a better response, a response that includes follow-up questions and possible conversation topics.
I could be completely wrong about how well these responses will work. The only way to find out is to test them.
Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich tells a story that emphasized the importance of testing. Originally, he introduced himself as a “writer,” and he got eye rolls and “Oh! Great…” from people. Why? Because everyone knows an unemployed writer or hobbyist blogger. As soon as Ramit switched to introducing himself as an “author,” however, he got a vastly different response. People asked him about his book and his blog and whole conversations can build from there.
So here’s what I’d suggest you do for step two — part one: Quickly think about what you normally say as an answer to these questions —
- How are you?
- Where are you from?
- What do you do?
- Where did you go to school and what did you study?
Now, rewrite your usual answers to be more surprising and personal. Practice your new answers a few times out loud, then actually test them out on people when they ask. These questions are common enough that you should have plenty of opportunities to test them out.
Remember what I said earlier about framing your interactions as a test. Some of the things you try won’t work, some will. Both are valuable feedback.
Step 2 — Part 2: Make them feel important with mirroring and questions
As an introvert, mirroring and questions will be your best friend. Let me explain what I mean.
I’ve heard so many introverts complain about not knowing what to talk about. When I work with my readers, they want to know how to make conversations flow naturally. They want the secret to keeping a conversation going. They’re always surprised by my answer…
- The secret is not to talk more. It’s to talk less.
Yes, that’s right. If you want to keep a conversation going longer as an introvert, you need to talk less, not more.
Of course, we all know that extrovert who takes over a conversation and can keep talking and telling stories for as long as necessary. A lot of introverts feel like that’s the only way to keep a conversation going. As an introvert if you try to keep a conversation up based on your own talking, you’re bound for a tough time.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, it starts with good questions. A simple “How is your day so far?” can actually kick off a conversation quite nicely. Notice the slight change from “How are you?” People will respond with “good” or “fine” if you ask “How are you?”
Instead, asking “How is your day so far?” begs an explanation. What made your day good? It also allows the person to think about it and possibly tell you their day is not so good. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Slight rewords of common questions can make a huge difference in the quality of your conversations. Here are some examples:
- “How are you” >> “How is your day so far?”
- “What do you do?” >> “What do you like to do?” or “What are you working on?”
- “Where are you from?” >> “Where did you grow up?” (← This one is subtle, can you spot why it works?)
Simple changes to the questions we hear so often do two key things:
- They interrupt the lazy conversation patterns we all have
- They encourage the person to think before answering
Once you’ve used one of these alternative questions, you have all kinds of opportunities for follow up. Consider this exchange…
- “How is your day so far?”
- “It’s going great.”
- “That’s good! What made it such a good day?”
- “Well, this morning I…”
I know, I know. That exchange sounds so cheesy. Believe me, though, I have used those exact questions, almost word for word, countless times. Almost inevitably, I get to an interesting conversation topic just based off of how well the person’s day is going. Before you write this technique off, try it.
Between your new answers to common questions and your own newly worded questions, you’re already ahead of 80% of people (including most extroverts) in networking and conversation skills.
There are whole books about improving conversation skills, but using good questions is key to keeping a conversation going. Once you’ve reworded some of the most common questions, you can also use follow-up questions to dig deeper. Almost any sentence someone says includes information that you can use for another question.
As you’re listening, don’t worry about what you’re going to talk about next, think about what questions you can ask. It’s simple advice, but this fundamental shift in approach — from talking to asking — will transform your conversations. A general rule of thumb I like to use is I should be talking only 20% of any conversation. Make the other person feel interesting and important.
- “Won’t it feel like an interrogation if all I’m doing is asking questions?”
So there’s one other technique we need to talk about: mirroring.
While you’re listening, be sure to use body language and facial expressions that mirror the person you’re talking to. This is a powerful psychological technique and it works like this…
- If the new acquaintance makes a gesture, you make a similar gesture a second later
- Whatever posture they adopt, you should adopt a similar posture
- If they’re smiling, you should also smile
- Watch their eyebrows and the crinkles at the sides of their eyes and mirror those
At first it will feel unnatural. You may wonder if the other person is going to notice. I have never had someone notice my mirroring. As long as you don’t over-exaggerate the gestures and mimickery, neither should you.
One thing I have experienced is focusing too much on the mirroring that I’m not listening well. That’s a problem. Active listening comes first. Otherwise you won’t have content for your followup questions/statements.
Other active listening cues like “yeah,” “uh huh,” and “okay.” Are also important. If you don’t currently use those, start working on them.
One final word on building intrigue — You’ll still have to talk a little bit. In my conversations I aim to only be talking 20–30% of the time. That’s it. During those times, I try to be as honest and genuine as possible.
I’ve found that people respond well to honesty and vulnerability. And those that don’t, you didn’t want to spend time with anyway.
STEP 3: I HATE EVENTS, SO WHERE DO I MEET NEW PEOPLE?
Most events are garbage. Unless you know some people there and you want to catch up, I don’t suggest going to events if you’re an introvert.
Why? Well, events are full of people who have their guard up. They know they’ll be approached. They know they’ll have to talk. And 90% of them just want to go home already. The other 10% are there to sell something. This means you’re likely to get canned answers or a sales pitch, neither of which are good for creating an authentic relationship.
I meet new people in two main places. I suggest you try these, though your results may vary from mine:
- Ask the people you currently know who you should meet — Explain a project to a friend then ask who they know that could help. This has the benefit of getting a warm introduction and not needing a topic for conversation. Instead, you get to talk with someone about a project. The hard part? You need to be working on something interesting and worthy of talking about.
- Go work on a committee, nonprofit board, etc — This is great because you get to show off your expertise. Tons of organizations need volunteers to offer skills and/or time. You may be able to get to know organizers of events, work with high-profile speakers, or meet regularly with colleagues in your industry. The main benefit of this approach is that your hard work will earn you respect, and you’ll develop relationships around a common cause.
These aren’t the only places to develop your network as an introvert. At your job, do your best to stay in touch with clients you’ve liked and former coworkers. Calling people on their birthdays is a great way to keep in touch.
Networking as an introvert (for everyone, really) should be a long game.
Of course, everyone’s network will be built of a combination of these and other tactics. Be genuine. Ask lots of questions. Stay interested in other people and with time you will build a great network.
STEP 4: Following up to maintain your relationships
The most important part of networking is also the part that’s most often forgotten.
You have to follow up with the person you met. Send them links to interesting articles. Write a testimonial for them. Endorse them on LinkedIn. Tweet about them. Ask a quick question. Eventually, take them to coffee or to lunch. Become tight with that person. Help them now, so that when you need it they’ll help you.
To remember to follow up, I use two systems:
- Birthdays — I learned this one from Keith Ferrazzi, and although I don’t agree that you should “Never Eat Alone,” I do think calling people on their birthdays is a great idea. What an awesome excuse to catch up with someone! The biggest benefit: most people are flabbergasted and excited to receive a call on their birthday because not many people actually call. Most people just leave a message on Facebook, but not you. Call.
- Reminder app — I use a reminder app to force me to remember people more often than once a year on their birthdays. My phone just sends me a notification every week/two weeks/month/quarter/etc with the person’s name. Then, I can decide to call, text, or email. It’s a simple way to keep in touch. I usually just ask for an update on the last thing we talked about or check in on any new projects.
You might find other systems that work for you. Just don’t underestimate the importance of consistent follow up. Nothing is worse than meeting someone, not hearing anything for months, then getting a message asking for something out of the blue.
Follow-up is where introverts have the opportunity to thrive. You might write a detailed email with interesting points. Maybe you’ve read a few things recently that your acquaintance might enjoy. Follow-up is where you dig deeper, and that’s a skill set that’s catered to introverts.
- Introverts have some real advantages when it comes to networking
- You probably have some limiting beliefs about networking; find them and test them
- Answer common questions differently
- Modify common questions when you’re the one asking
- Mirror body language and gestures
- Don’t go to events; try asking friends for connections and volunteering your time instead
- Follow-up is the most important part of networking
I’ve used my network to land jobs, get mentoring, and make friends. You can, too, if you’re willing to play the long game building authentic relationships.
In the comments below, tell me what your biggest struggle with networking is as an introvert. I read every response.
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