If you're shy, you might think you're no good at networking. After all, the crowds, small talk and forced merriment associated with industry events and career fairs can downright drain an introvert.
In fact, says Devora Zack, president of Only Connect Consulting and author of Networking For People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide For Introverts, The Overwhelmed, and The Underconnected (Berrett-Koehler/ASTD Press), shy types can be better at networking than their more inherently outgoing counterparts (extroverts), and are often better at making new connections than they think.
"There are people who might love networking, who may be good at making small talk and working a room, but who might not necessarily be good at it," says Zack. "If they don't follow up on those conversations the next day, they're not making meaningful, lasting connections. Real networking is about creating meaningful, mutually beneficial connections, one person at a time."
Such a slower, more deliberate (and some might argue more genuine) approach to networking is easier for and more appealing to introverts than racing around a convention center gathering as many business cards as possible. But because networking is often cast as a numbers game, where quantity of connections trumps quality, introverts who employ a higher touch approach often feel that they're not working hard enough or making enough connections.
Fear not, introverts. Zack contends that a good professional network emphasizes the quality of contacts over quantity.
"To be a great networker, most of us need to go to fewer events and talk to fewer people," she says.
Here, Zack offers a three-step approach to networking, plus several other tips, that take advantage of introverts' inherent strengths.
Your "Weaknesses" Are Your Strengths
Conventional networking wisdom sends the message that being shy means you won't be good at networking because you need to talk to people to network.
On the contrary, listening is as important as talking when it comes to networking, and introverts tend to be better listeners than the extroverts who run at the mouth, notes Zack.
"Introverts go deep. They like deeper connections and they think [in order] to talk, whereas extroverts talk to think," says Zack. "If you accept that fact rather than force yourself to make small talk, it probably means you're good at asking questions and a good listener. So instead of talking about yourself, you'll ask people about themselves, and because you go deep, you learn more about the people you engage with."
Another strength possessed by introverts: "They tend to follow-up on things other people tell them about themselves, rather than asking for something," says Zack.
Follow-up is a critical part of networking because it cements new relationships. "If you're not following up, you're not networking," says Zack. "If you're going to an event to make connections, nothing is going to happen unless you follow up. It's easy to follow up if you only meet three people, and that's often the case with introverts."
Heed "The Platinum Rule"
Introverts are more adept than extroverts at employing what Zack refers to as The Platinum Rule. Where The Golden Rule admonishes people to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," Zack's Platinum Rule advises people to treat others as they want to be treated.
"If I follow The Golden Rule, treat others how I want to be treated, I'll be right half the time," says Zack.
For example, if two coworkers—one who is an introvert and one who is an extrovert—are at an industry event, the extrovert might bring up a funny story about the introvert, thinking it will help his taciturn colleague bond with other professionals at the event. Where the extrovert may not mind someone else sharing a comic anecdote about himself, the introvert may get embarrassed, making it even more difficult for him to emerge from his shell. Thus, the extrovert's use of The Golden Rule to help his colleague backfires.
The Platinum Rule requires its practitioners to pick up on cues others send to them about how they want to be treated. Because introverts tend to be more externally sensing than extroverts, they're better able to pick up on these cues, says Zack.
Pause, plan, pace is Zack's three step approach to making the most of networking events. The approach is specifically designed for introverts.
When Zack advises them to pause, she means they should figure out what events they want to attend and what their goals are in attending that event.
The next part of the process is about planning for success, says Zack. Plan questions you might ask people you meet, as well as questions they might ask you and what your answers would be.
Since introverts tend to prefer one-on-one interactions to large crowds, Zack recommends that introverts plan to identify one person in advance with whom they'd like to have dinner so that they don't have to worry about getting swallowed in a huge dinner party—or eating alone.
She also suggests that introverts plan to volunteer at an event. Volunteering gives them a defined role, which makes networking easier for them by putting them in a position to help—and meet—others in attendance.
Another aspect of planning is arriving at the event early. People who hate networking often plan to arrive at an event late, notes Zack, so that they don't have to make small talk while they wait for the event to kick off.
The problem with the late-comer strategy is that when an introvert arrives at a conference late, everything is already in motion. People have already started getting to know each other, and thus the introvert becomes the outsider, and it's harder for him to meet people. What's more, when the conference is already in motion, the boisterous environment can make introverts want to leave even more. "If you get there earlier, it's quieter and easier to talk to people," says Zack.
Pacing oneself while at an event is perhaps the most important part of the process for introverts. Zack reminds introverts that they don't have to attend every conference session, break or cocktail hour to make the most of networking opportunities. Taking time to recharge will improve the quality of their networking and make it more productive.
"If you work with who you are rather than fight against your natural personality traits, what you perceive as your networking liabilities can become your finest networking strengths," she says.
Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Meridith at firstname.lastname@example.org.