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Thursday, March 31, 2016 12:04 am

Networking for people who hate networking

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times: networking is essential for any job search. More essential than the perfect resume, more essential than hours spent poring over listings, perhaps even more essential than brushing your teeth before an interview. Perhaps not.

But to an introvert, someone who values in-depth conversations and quiet time to process their thoughts, facing a room of strangers with business cards can sound like a Sisyphean task. Introversion differs from shyness, a lack of confidence and fear of judgment. It is, simply, an aversion to high-stimulation environments. Apparently Bill Gates, a quiet intellectual, is unfazed by others’ opinions of him, making him an introvert, but not shy. Barbra Streisand, on the other hand, loves sharing her big personality with people but is sometimes paralyzed by stage fright, a shy extrovert. Either may have once needed help with effective networking. Fear not, Bill and Barbra, we’ll help you with your stagnant careers.

The first thing introverts may need to change is their attitude toward networking. If you consider networking to be the realm of sleazy salesmen in synthetic suits, of course you’re going to have an aversion to it. If, like most introverts, you value genuine connections, think of networking as a way to build those, rather than just to collect leads to get what you want. Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out Networking: A Simple and Authentic Guide to Meeting People on Your Own Terms reminds us that networking “isn’t just about growing your business; it’s about expanding your life with the kind of interesting people you’d like to surround yourself with.”

So find your way to conferences and events in which you have a genuine interest.  Smaller events may provide the best opportunity to practice. Once you’ve registered for one, don’t just hold your breath and dive in blindly, hoping it will soon be over. Forays into networking can be productive and even fulfilling if you prepare by doing a little research and rehearsal beforehand. Start by looking up the event and following the organizers on social media. Forge connections with other attendees in advance by reaching out to them online. Comment on their updates and share a bit of yourself, your background and personality when you do. Use LinkedIn to determine with whom you’d like to connect, learn about them and find shared interests. Then when the day of the event arrives, you will have a handful of acquaintances to track down and continue conversing with, rather than a sea of anonymous faces.  These online connections can help you find future networking events as well.

Envision networking more like forming actual friendships — the work benefits may come later.

Next, practice. Prepare a few key stories that illustrate what you do and what has excited you about your work in the past. Take time to recall some key accomplishments so they’re fresh in your mind.  Write out some open-ended questions to get people talking. Rehearse small talk if it’s not your forte. Enlist friends to help. (Bonus points if they’re an extroverts and can share some of their social magic tricks).

When the day of your event arrives, get there early. It will be much easier to start talking with people as you’re all arriving, rather than inserting yourself into conversations already in progress. If the people you’ve connected with online aren’t around, look for a small group or a pair with open body language, not a tight-knit circle. Adam McHugh, on Quietrev.com (a fantastic source of information for introverts) suggests just smiling and introducing yourself, not worrying about a clever opener. It can actually be a good icebreaker (and a relief!) to admit how intimidating it is to meet people. Remember to envision networking more like forming actual friendships — the work benefits may come later naturally. Think of meeting people as the beginning of relationships you’ll build on later, rather than worrying about selling yourself all at once.

Post-event, sending thank you notes or emails can be a great way to clarify a communication that didn’t go as planned, or to clarify or expand on something you were trying to say.  Build on your momentum and practice saying yes to other social opportunities, but also take breaks when you start to feel overextended. Introverts have unique strengths that can be a boon to employers. They only must learn how to showcase these boons. Just like Bill and Barbra.

Contact Ann Farrar at afarrar@illinoistimes.com.



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