Conference Networking for Introverts - 5 Ways I Cope
I'm always down to meet new people who are passionate about what they do (and doing cool things). But as an introvert, there's only so long I want to talk to anyone for. It’s just my nature.
Networking events, which can have a speed-dating feel and format, bring an extra challenge of starting over with a new person every few minutes, quickly draining my social battery.
Halfway through the networking sessions, I'm likely to be wiped, nodding politely while secretly feeing relieved I've gotten some chatty person off on a roll and am saved from having to meet-and-greet with new strangers. Or else I've snuck off to the snack table or the loo, where I'm refreshing Instagram to see what fun other people are having while I'm stuck here.
Neither circumstance is all that rewarding, because neither really allows for the positive organic experience everyone wants from networking. The opportunity to meet someone who gets it - who gets us.
Maybe it's a potential new business partner who has the people skills to our theoretical expertise. Maybe it's the dream CP for a novel in progress.
No matter the networking facility, you won't find those dream matches if you're not in the room. You won’t be open to them when you're dreading every interaction because the social stimuli are overwhelming.
Well aware of all the possible perks of networking, I have a toolkit of techniques I use to fake a certain level of enthusiasm until the real deal takes over, because I've gotten over the dread that accompanies small talk with strangers and am enjoying the experience (at least, as much as I can - it's never going to be my favorite thing and that's totally fine). Here are five of the ways I cope with conference networking as an introvert.
1. Have a Goal
With any networking session, the whole overwhelming mass of it becomes much more manageable when I can connect to a particular why.
Why am I there? Sure, because I got a conference ticket - but why am I at the conference?
In this case, I wanted to mingle with other food and travel writers–but why? What was my goal or learning objective for the conference in general, and then for the particular event?
Who could I meet that would help me achieve my goal?
Do I want to be inspired by people who are at a higher level than me, find writing buddies who live near me, or drum up business by finding a potential client who could use gay travel writing content?
At the heart of a successful networking connection is the seed of a mutually beneficial relationship.
When you can reflect on your goal (say, that CP match), you can use it as a conversation starter by asking people what type of writing they do. Is it a match to yours? Potential fit! If not, they won't help you meet your goals so you can extricate from the conversation guilt-free.
2. Have an Elevator Pitch
I'm not a fan of talking about myself - hence why I tend to end up with chatty extroverts who enjoy talking about themselves, so I can listen and learn.
Practicing an elevator pitch ahead of time gives me a way to work out my nerves and a practical script of talking points, so when people ask about me, I don't have to scramble over what to say.
Drawing on your goals and the purpose of the event, you can come up with a simple introduction that covers who you are, what type of writing or other work you do, what you're looking for, and what you hope to learn. Thus:
I'm an LGBTQ travel writer currently working on a novel about a gap year gone horribly awry. I came here to brush up on my marketing and branding knowledge, and really loved the panel on XYZ, but I'm also hoping to connect with other writers in my area and find CPs. What about you - what brought you here?
Practice. Polish. Repeat.
3. Have Conversation Starters Ready
Introverts are notoriously reluctant conversation starters, and for good reason. Like an elevator pitch, conversation starters give you a go-to way to start talking to someone, which are often the trickiest parts for introverts. A natural conversation starter for writing events is to ask what type of writing someone does.
You might also ask:
Where are you from?
Have you ever been to the city before? What do you like/what are you planning to do?
Have you ever been to this conference before? Do you have any tips?
What has been your favorite panel so far?
What books have you read and loved lately?
When you're not writing, what else do you like to do?
Conversation starters don’t have to be clever or cute. They simply have to give someone an opening. Be that person!
If you're hovering near a group, a simple tactic that works is to press yourself toward and ask if you can join with a simple, Hey can I join you? I heard you were talking about X, mind if I hop in? is also effective. Most reasonable people will make space for you, and then you can introduce yourself and listen.
4. Play to Your Strengths
We all have natural rhythms. Times and places when we're at our best and times when we're low energy. For me, I'm productive in the mornings and creative in the afternoons, with an afternoon energy low and morning/evening energy spikes. Looking over the conference schedule, I would prioritize networking opportunities that line up with my energy spikes and productive times, when possible. It's not always feasible, but if you know that you need to unwind in the evenings, you can say no to that networking dinner guilt-free - you won't get much out of it, and it's not a great investment of your time.
If you're stuck networking at a time or place that is less than ideal for you, see whether there are ways to psych yourself up. A well-timed coffee or tea could provide an energy boost; a quick meditation session could boost your focus.
My preferred technique is to set a minimum time frame for interacting and follow up with a motivational reward. Show my face at the networking event, then leave to have an ice cream and read by the beach.
As an introvert, listening is one of my strengths. Once I battle the initial overwhelm (one reason I tend to forget people's names, true story ). I am at home listening and responding to things others are saying - and oftentimes, I pick up story ideas this way. So after getting into a conversation and verifying it will be of some use toward helping me with a goal, I can shift into my comfort listening mode and the interaction starts to feel more natural.
5. Know When to Call it Quits
You've got a goal, you've got conversation starters and a personal introduction, and you know how to pivot from your stretches to your strengths. Now all that's left is to know when to call it and leave the event. I try to stick around until I feel like I’ve made the connection I want, but there are times when I’ve called it early due to fatigue or a quick realization that the opportunity I wanted was not there.
If you end up getting into the swing of things and having fun, stay as long as you want.
If networking still feels like work, check in after a few conversations. What's not working and can you make tweaks to be more effective? When you feel like you've accomplished your goal (or given it a reasonable shot), take a break. Grab a snack or drink. Find a quiet area where you can sit and make notes on the conversations you've had. Most importantly, congratulate yourself.
It wasn't as bad as you thought it would be.
You had fun, made a new friend (maybe).
And next time, it will be easier.