I remember my first networking event. Well, I don’t remember the details like who organized it, and even why I was there. But I remember how it made me feel. Awkward. It was at the beginning of my career when I was getting into management, and networking with potential clients, partners, and even competitors became part of my job.
I knew only one person at the event, and more than a hundred people were participating. Most of them much more experienced, most of them being in the industry circles a long time, most of them knowing each other. I remember spending most of the evening tagging along with the only person I knew, with frequent detours to the table with some delicious food. It was exhausting, and it was awkward. I didn’t get anything out of it except for the knowledge that this really isn’t my thing. You see, I’m an introvert, and schmoozing with a crowd of people I don’t know is the ultimate representation of hell.
I dreaded coming to the event, I didn’t enjoy it while I was there, and I was happy to escape. Yet, on my way home, while overanalyzing everything like any introvert would and having all the great things I should have said flooding my brain, I also had a good feeling. I was somehow glad I went. I’ve got out of my comfort zone, and now, when I knew how things work, I also knew that I could do much better next time with proper preparation.
Regardless of how much you may hate the idea of networking, you need to accept the reality of the world. And the world requires you to meet new people if you want to build relationships, sell your services, build a business, and be successful.
How not to do it
“Hi, I’m Tomas, how are you? Oh, you work for ThoseGuys? Cool. I work for TheseGuys, we sell some machines, maybe you could use some?” By this point, you are already exhausted, feeling silly, and you can see that both you and your first victim on the networking event want to be somewhere else.
This is not an introvert way. This ad-hoc, let’s just wing it approach works only for charismatic smooth talkers who work the room with the ballet dancers’ grace. It is the traveling salesman approach when you don’t bother building strong relationships before trying to sell your services, but you go for volume and try to shovel your pitch down the throat of as many people as possible, as fast as possible. It is not about them. This is not how introverts do it, and you shouldn’t even try that.
Matthew Pollard, in The Introvert’s Edge to Networking, talks in great detail about how even introverts can get the most of networking events without feeling awkward or out of their depths. Forget about how extroverts do it, rather focus on your strengths and make them work for you. Learn the art of strategic networking. Introverts excel in preparation. So with proper preparation and by following a well-defined process, you can become pretty good even at something as seemingly anti-introvert as networking.
Niche and passion
Before you even contemplate networking, you should figure out why you want to do it and who you actually are. What is so special about you? How do you want to present yourself to others? And who are the people you want to meet? It is never a good idea to try to please everyone. It would just stress you out and dilute your chance to become interesting, at least for someone. You need to identify your niche, and you need to tailor your life story, so it grabs the attention of those you are targeting.
Identifying your niche works in tandem with what your strengths are, and that, in turn, leads to things you are passionate about. Most introverts are very comfortable talking about things they are passionate about. It shows through your words. It grabs attention. And it removes stress and builds confidence. It makes you authentic. It makes you a go-to person for specific needs. It also gives you the motivation to network.
After you got your niche, you need to consider your unique selling point. What’s so special about you that your customers like? Why are they coming back? That might be difficult to figure out on your own. You may feel like you are not doing anything exceptional. So go and ask the customers. If they like what you offer, they will be more than happy to help you out.
People don’t like listening to you talking about your boring work, but they enjoy listening to a story. Stories have immense power over us. Come up with a couple of stories that will illustrate the value you provided to some of your best clients. Make it short, emotional, and connect it with solving a problem that everyone in your niche has. You don’t want the client to logically analyze your services as then you will be one of many others offering similar things, and you won’t stand out. The potential client will justify to themselves why what you describe wouldn’t work for them. They are wary of salespeople. You want to create an emotional connection that will make the potential client say to themselves, “yes, that is me in that story, please, please, help me!”
As Matthew Pollard writes, to create your stories, you need to answer three key questions. What are the major problems your niche wants to get solved? What is the solution, strategy, or product that you recommend for solving the problem? What is the story you have that describes someone who had that problem, implemented your solution, and got positive results? The story shouldn’t be about you. It should be about the experience and the emotions of the person you helped. Just like in fables, make it very clear what the moral of the story is.
Your strength of preparation doesn’t end here. Before you get out the door to attend a networking event, you should know who will be there. Ideally, you even what to know some of these people at least a little bit. If you already communicated with them and had the conversation going, it would be easier to fit in. Get online, and do your homework. Often you can find who will participate in the event, and you can identify those you want to approach. It makes your networking genuinely strategic.
Have a script
Don’t worry about coming up with new phrases and conversation topics for each person you meet at the event. In fact, do the opposite. Prepare a script you can repeat to every person you meet and polish it to perfection. The people you talk to won’t know you told the story already to five other people, and in the end, what’s wrong with that? If improv is not your thing, why should you force it?
When something you say works and helps you to build a rapport with others, why change it? Use it every time. The more you use it, the more comfortable you will be with it, the smoother it will flow, and the better it will work. Once you have your system polished, you won’t ever need to change it. Every networking event you join will have the same type of people from your niche. You will already know who you want to talk to. They will ask the same kind of questions, and you will know what statements will work. It will all feel very familiar and natural.
If you feel that preparing and practicing the story will make you sound scripted, think again. Just consider any great actor or actress in your favorite movie. They certainly don’t sound scripted even though they repeat the lines someone wrote for them. Good preparation will make you more confident and will remove some of your anxiety. It will make you sound more natural.
Matthew Pollard even suggests some scripts for you to consider if you don’t know where to start. The thing to realize is that it is not only about telling the story and explaining how you can help. You also want the person to take positive action. You can end up with something like, “I enjoy the conversation, but I don’t want to take all your time. What if I reach out by email to schedule a coffee? Would that be something you are open to?” You may also offer to introduce some people, share some content. Regardless of future potential business, your goal now is to help keep the conversation going in the future.
Learn and follow-up
After every networking event, you should consider the lessons learned. What went right? What could go better? Did you say your stories straight? What was the reaction? Did you follow your script? What derailed you? What were the unexpected responses that took you off balance? Which conversations led to action, and which didn’t? Why they didn’t? What will you do the next time differently? What do you need to prepare for it? When will you start? It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you because you didn’t achieve what you wanted. It just means your system needs some tweaks and improvements. Remember, the same as in sales, networking is all about the process.
And don’t forget to follow up. There is little point in having a great conversation at the event, make all sorts of promises, and then not following up. Great relationships require regular nurture, and it applies double when the relationship is just starting.
Putting it all together
It starts with changing your mindset and setting different expectations. It is not your goal to go to the networking event and collect as many business cards as possible. Change your goal to something more modest, like meeting one or two interesting people you can build a deeper relationship with. Then prepare and follow your process.
And if you still feel like you never want to stick your head into a room full of people at a networking event, consider that all this preparation and the whole process works online too. Figuring out who you are, finding your niche, developing stories, and communicating your value will help you get to know people and bring some business not only in a networking event but in online marketing too.
What is your take on the topic? Do you think that networking events and various conferences can be useful for introverts? What is your approach to getting most of the networking event? Do you have a better way to connect with people and expand your circle of fans and clients?
Disclaimer: I had the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Matthew Pollard’s The Introvert’s Edge to Networking.
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