Networking in Your Sweatpants
You’ve probably heard conventional advice about networking: Practice your elevator pitch, try approaching people standing alone (they’ll be happy someone is talking to them), memorize icebreaker questions (“How did you hear about this group?” “What’s the most difficult part of your job?”)
Those are fine pieces of advice for certain kinds of events and certain kinds of people (ahem, extroverts). But what if the thought of going to such an event in the first place fills you with anxiety?
Then you might just be an introvert.
Some say that an introvert is someone who, rather than being energized by spending time with others, expends energy being with others — and needs to recharge by being alone.
In 1995, it would have been pretty hard to network without attending events and schmoozing. But today it’s possible to use the ol’ Internet to do most of your networking — without ever standing around eating cheese cubes.
Here’s how to make networking less awful by doing as much as possible at home, alone, in sweatpants.
Your Reputation Must Precede You
To an introvert, the most loathsome parts of events are making small talk with strangers, explaining over and over again what it is you do, and standing around awkwardly.
You can avoid all of this by never going anywhere unless the people there already know who you are.
How do you do this? Create amazing work, get it out there, and make sure your name is on it. Sure, that’s easier if you’re a writer. But guess what? We’re all writers now. Caitlin Doughty is a mortician, but she makes a witty video series that promotes her brand (“Ask a Mortician”). If you’re a restaurateur or a CPA, you should be producing media: articles, white papers, videos.
If the work you’re putting out isn’t interesting enough, be more interesting. Address the elephant in the room. If everyone’s talking getting women into STEM careers, write about how to get sexist men out of STEM careers (intriguing!). If everyone says they want to further women in Industry X but actually everyone just wants to make more money, write a guide to making more money.
Have a website that showcases your work. Yes, you have to have a photo. Video is even better. Next time you ditch an event because it’s raining and you hate those things, use the time to work on your online presence.
Do it right, and in a year you can walk into a room and people will rush to talk to you. You won’t have to explain what you do. The conversations will be more meaningful because they began with your work.
Use Intellectualism to Your Advantage
Were you pretty good at writing papers in college? Probably a lot better and faster at it than some of your more extroverted colleagues?
Great! Write some white papers. A white paper is basically like the papers you wrote in college, except that you use them as advertising. Well-written white papers are truly the least objectionable form of self-promotion.
Some possible formats:
- Write a how-to manual for whatever it is you do. Brain-dump a lot of technical information. Include a section on how to work with a professional (like yourself) and the lessons you’ve learned in your work with clients. People will know that means you’re for hire.
- Write about the pros and cons of several ways to accomplish something. Surprise: One of those ways is whatever you’re selling. But be honest: “If you’re a small business, you might want to do X manually. But if you have 20+ employees, software like ours will save you money.” Then show the math.
- “Top 10 Mistakes” or most important do’s and don’ts. Again, if you include case studies and lessons learned from your work with clients, people will figure out that you can be enticed to do things in exchange for money.
People sometimes pass on white papers to colleagues or print them for meetings. So make sure your contact information is on every page, with a larger block at the end with all your links and information. Or give yourself a bio page.
You can also use intellectualism to your advantage by passing on substantive articles to colleagues, contacts, and superiors. Provide a bit of thoughtful analysis and include the most relevant paragraph in the email (so the person doesn’t have to go read the article before replying). The person will think: “How nice of her to read the Harvard Business Review and forward me the exact part that helps me.”
Big plus: All of this can be done in front of a computer while in your pj’s, which is probably how you wrote those college papers, too.
Glom On to a Bubbly Extrovert
If you have limited social energy, don’t try to spread it all around. Instead, focus it on an extrovert or two and let them work their magic.
I’m not kidding. A lot of extroverts are proud of how social they are and like to be recognized for this. And just as you might feel insecure about your social skills, they might feel insecure that people don’t think they have important things to say or that they’re “just” the life of the party.
You can help each other. (See “The Power of Quiet,” a Susan Cain speech illustrated by Molly Crabapple, which talks about how introverts and extroverts can complement one another’s strengths.)
How do you meet an extrovert? Sometimes, they come to you — that’s what they do. Or sometimes, you keep hearing the same name, someone everyone seems to know. Great! Send her an email that says exactly that. Hi, I work with [mutual friend] and [mutual friend], who both mentioned you’re the person to talk to about X. I hope you don’t mind if I send you a request to connect on LinkedIn. I just thought I’d make contact — do you attend any of the [industry group] events?
Once you meet that unicorn who keeps introducing you to other people and opportunities, hang on and don’t let go! Also, thank your extrovert. Compliment the extrovert to the people she introduced you to (it’ll get back to her). Send her any opportunities she might benefit from passing on to others (for instance, a job listing at your company that hasn’t been posted yet). Try to reciprocate as much as you can. If you do brave an in-person event, ask her which ones she’s going to. You can’t stay stuck to her all night, but you’ll feel more at ease if you start off with someone you know. Besides, she’s probably pretty good at setting you up in a conversation before moving on.
Network With Other Introverts
Do you like books? Nonfiction books in your field? Great! You know who are often introverts? Authors.
Read books and send thoughtful emails to every author. Make your email long enough to show you read the book and you’re a smart cookie, but not long enough to be creepy. Then ask a question — one that’s easy to answer — to increase your chances of getting a response.
Formula: I loved your book. Here are a few things I thought were very helpful and insightful. Here is a question that will take you less than a minute to answer and that I could not have just Googled (because everyone is annoyed when you use them as human Google). Thanks so much for writing this book. Your Name, followed by a signature that allows the person to find out more about you.
Who else hates schmoozing but would be good to get to know? A lot of people in tech. There are plenty of people who feel like making software is a real thing and chatting with strangers is not a real thing, and that everyone should sit down and do real things. Talk to those people.
The great thing about networking with other introverts is that you do not, at any point, have to upgrade the relationship to loud nights together in which you hop from bar to bar, doing deals over drinks. You can keep the relationship entirely online, or possibly venture out of your respective caves for coffee.
Is it hard to find other introverts? Then…
Plan Your Own Events
It might seem counterintuitive that someone who dislikes in-person events should host in-person events. But it isn’t. Many introverts feel more comfortable when they have a defined role within a group. Many performers are actually introverts — they feel fine on stage, but miserable trying to mingle with a crowd.
Events don’t have to be fancy. You can hold an event at home and control the milieu. Are you 25? Have a spaghetti dinner and serve cheap wine. In 20 years, your friends and colleagues will, in general, be more successful and eat fancier food, and they’ll look back fondly on all the amazing connections they made sitting on your living room rug because there weren’t enough chairs.
Don’t want people in your house? Find a bar that doesn’t get a lot of business on a Monday night — preferably one with a private room — and hold an event there. (Plenty of spaces won’t charge you anything since you’re bringing in paying customers.) Ask a friend or two to arrive at the same time as you so you’re not waiting by yourself during the first half-hour. Then, when you get tired, you can slip out early and be on your couch in time to get the “awesome event, sorry I missed you” texts.
In fact, hold an event called “Introvert Networking.” You could host it in a library or an office lounge or some other non-bar space. Advertise “Limited to 10 people. Everyone gets to sit on a couch or armchair. We’ll begin with introductions about what everyone is working on, discuss this month’s question — [intriguing topic] — and then chat until 8 pm or so.” Introverts tend to be more comfortable when they are prepared for the exact social situation they will encounter.
Figure out something that works, and hold the same event two to four times a year. People will start to look forward to your events, and say things like, “Oh, you should come to one of Jane’s Introvert Prosecco-and-Chocolate Tastings.”
Wherever you hold your event, tell everyone you invite that they’re welcome to bring someone — but ask them to tell you ahead of time who they’re bringing. Look up those people and figure out who you really want to know. Then, when the event happens, you’ll know virtually everyone there. All those new people? They were introduced to you in a context in which you were the most important person in the room, and that’s a good way to meet people. It takes the pressure off you, which lets you shift your energy toward being a kind, charming, magnanimous host.