January 31, 2012

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been asked more than once, “how might an introvert become a master networker?”  The topic has not only caught my attention due to readers and other parties calling it forth, but this week’s Time Magazine cover story is entitled, “The Power of Shyness:  The Upside of Being an Introvert (and Why Extroverts are Overrated).”  There is even a new book out by Susan Cain entitled, Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  Needless to say, I am intrigued.

The first time shyness or introversion (by the way… they are not the same thing, but there are some points of intersection) came up recently, a dear friend and self-described introvert, paid me a compliment.  He illustrated how historically, he would go to large conferences or networking events, walk in and circle the room three times.  When, as per usual, nobody would approach him, he would simply leave the event.  He juxtaposed that behavior with a more recent experience.  He had to attend a breakfast event for work.  Upon arriving at the location, he entered the meeting room with the same feeling of dread, trepidation and anxiety that he normally carried to such events.  When he walked in, he could tell that those in attendance were already in their traditional cliques, factions and pre-ordained groupings.  He felt out of place.  Again, he did his standard three circles on the perimeter of the room.  However, a rare thing happened.  Instead of heading for the door, he thought back to the Coffee-Lunch-Coffee approach, and asked himself, “What do I have to lose?”  Rather than head out, he waded directly into the fray!  Hoorah!  A documented Coffee-Lunch-Coffee success story!  Not surprisingly to me… though very surprisingly to him… he fell into conversation with another event participant.  It turned out that they had tons in common… same number of kids, wives did the same kind of work, both grew up in the same town, etc.  He left feeling great about the interaction.  He had begun to form a new, meaningful relationship.

Then, last week, I presented the Coffee-Lunch-Coffee approach to a group of first year law students at the University of Missouri Kansas City.  As I wrapped up my prepared remarks, one of the attendees in the back of the room bravely raised her hand and said that she understood the approach, even liked it, but that she was skeptical about her ability to put it to use because she is an introvert.  Egads!  What to do?

Bryan Walsh, author of the Time Magazine article, who also claims to be an introvert, had this to say:

Introverts may be able to fit all their friends in a phone booth, but those relationships tend to be deep and rewarding.  Introverts are more cautious and deliberate than extroverts, but that means they tend to think things through more thoroughly, which means they can often make smarter decisions.  Introverts are better at listening – which, after all, is easier to do if you’re not talking – and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative.

Wow!  Natural born networkers, if ever heard of them!  In fact, Walsh highlights several famous introverts as part of his article.  Have you heard of any of them?  Joe DiMaggio, Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mother Teresa, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul.

My recommendation to you introverts out there is to quell your fears by…

  1. Have your personal stories down pat.  The more comfortable you are with telling your own story, the less anxious you will be in a networking situation.
  2. Prepare yourselves with some standard questions to ease the flow of conversation when you meet with new contacts.  Things like, “How did you get into your business?”  “What was your inspiration?”  “Who are your mentors?”  “What companies would you recommend that I study and get to know?”
  3. Buddy up if it makes you feel better.  Another friend of mine – yep, introvert extraordinaire – recently recalled to me that he would never have gone to functions outside of work or to conference events on his own without me tagging along.  He says it was my encouragement and support (maybe a little begging and arm twisting, too!) that gave him the impetus to attend those events.
  4. And, finally, relax.  People love to talk about themselves.  With a few well timed questions, you will have plenty to talk about… and listen to!  And, as previously described, most introverts actually do quite well in one-on-one settings – it is the big social forum that peaks their anxiety levels.

In closing, remember, successful networking focuses on quality over quantity.  Coffee-Lunch-Coffee style networking is very much about one-on-one conversation, exploration and discovery through dialogue.  It is absolutely not about major networking functions, eating shrimp cocktail and collecting business cards.  Not interested in a big social gala for networking?  No problem.  Settle instead for the more intimate cup of Coffee – or a cold Coke – with a new contact and spend the time to actually get to know one another.  You will derive your energy and ease from that positive interaction.