Introverted Networking: A few strategies
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I've been working on a workshop in regards to networking, and especially on how to network when you are/identify as someone who is an introvert. I'm usually considered an extrovert myself, even though I carry most (if not all) traits that people generally think of when they think of introverts. I just know how to tap into the other traits as well, when they're needed. I thought I'd put it up since GDC is around the corner, but it isn't in it's final form. More of a Squirtle than a Blastoise. Below I try to discuss this a bit more, as well as strategies to become more effective at networking, but it is a work in progress and I'd be very grateful for any and all input.
“We don't need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.” - Susan Cain
People, and to some extent science, view introversion and extroversion quite binary – you can’t be both an introvert and an extrovert. There’s also something called ambiversion which basically means that if you test your tendencies you end up somewhere in the middle, basically talkative but with a strong desire to be left alone from time to time. We won’t spend more time on these different positions, you just need to know that these things exist – and some of the traits usually prescribed to these positions. If this was a sliding scale from Introvert to extrovert, you’d have ambiverts somewhere closer to the middle.
Traits for extroverts: outgoing, talkative, energetic, lots of friends and acquaintances
Traits for introverts: reserved, solitary, observing, few friends but deep relationships with them
While these traits might be a good generalization, I feel like they might also be a bit too general. If we instead look at introversion and extroversion as charging modes, then we could define it something like this:
Extroverts gain energy from being around people, while introverts gain energy from not being around people.
It should also be noted that shyness is not the same thing as being introvert, shyness is basically a fear of social interaction, of humiliation – introversion only means that you have a smaller need of interaction, and a higher need of being alone. It has nothing to do with being sociable or not.
Going to a conference might boost someone’s energy if they’re extrovert, whereas it might drain a person if they’re introvert. The amount of stimuli during these highly social events creates different reactions. So if we take out the traits usually prescribed to intro/extroverts and instead think of it as people who “recharges” by being alone or by interacting with others I think we’ll have a better position for further discussion. This means that there’s no generalized social traits connected to either position. It is not inherently bad or good to be either.
If we also convert our scale to a X and Y axis, with the Y axis being Extrovert and the X axis being introvert, we can discuss the different places you might need to “be” when you’re networking.
We’ll leave the intro/extroversion behind for a bit, and try instead to define what networking is – just so that we’re on some kind of similar page for the sake of this discussion.
“Networking is a socioeconomic business activity by which groups of like-minded businesspeople recognize, create, or act upon business opportunities.” – Business Networking, Wikipedia
What this translates to, distilled through my own perspective, is socializing with a purpose – to discover and connect business opportunities, and also do business. Business here is not necessarily a monetary “deal” – networking can be to create visibility, recruit new team members or strategic partner/friendships that can benefit your business later on. The important word here is purpose. To network you need to have a purpose, a goal. If you don’t, you’re basically just hanging out. With strangers. In a crowded place. Which you probably payed to get into. (Which doesn’t sound like that great of a time, after all.)
I tend to swing my pendulum from the idealist perspective to the business perspective when I look at what I’m doing or what I’m going to do. You could say that one perspective is for the softer values, and for my own well-being. It’s qualitative more than quantitative. The business perspective is more data driven – I can quite easily measure if it goes well. When I’m evaluating an upcoming networking event I want it to be valuable to both of those. Example: I’m going to GDC.
The idealist perspective is somewhat like this: I want to go there to meet friends in the industry, be introduced to new people and awesome projects, get inspired and pumped about all the great things that are happening in the industry and see the sun rise over the bay with new, great people. I find people whom I can help out with stuff: either introducing them to my friends, giving advice in regards to business or marketing or just as someone to talk to because something went to shit and they need to vent. I want to eat all the things, and I hope to eat them with people I enjoy. I want to walk alone down by the pier and mull over the things I’ve done since last year. I don’t want to be around assholes or people that drain the energy out of these events.
The business perspective is somewhat like this: My job pays money to make sure that I make connections with developers, journalists, publishers and investors that will benefit the incubator, the companies within the incubator and the region we are active in as a whole. To do this I will research who is going, find my “targets” and check in what way we are connected. Then I will make sure to be in the right places with the right people, so that I can be introduced or make an introduction. From there on I will present information about the incubator, Creative Coast Festival, the companies within the incubator and so on depending on whom I’m currently speaking to. My goal is to have at least 20 new business acquaintances by the end of the week, and that they have produced value in according to the reasons I go to GDC come next GDC.
So the best case scenario is that I get to meet-up with my friends, get introduced and/or introduce myself to interesting people who are doing great things in this industry, who can benefit me and the incubator during the next year and all of this while eating and watching the sunrise. None of us are assholes, or have assholes around us. Next year we’ve done stuff on my or their home turf, and the incubator and incubator companies have extended its/their network with friendly and influential people.
If I only go with the idealist perspective, I should be fired – or at least asked to pay for my own travels as this is not what I'm paid to do. If I only go with the business perspective I most probably will not end up doing a good job since every interaction needs to have a clear win-state, or else I’m wasting time talking to someone whom I might not get anything concrete from. This will make me come off, and feel, like an asshole, making social interactions harder. To be able to do the business side well, I need to do the idealist side well as that will be stuff that brings me energy enough to perform well in other contexts. Knowing what helps me keep going through 10 days of networking, and knowing the goals of those 10 days, is the first step of what makes me a good enough networker.
The second step is performance. I’m not a sociable person in private. I have friends, but I don’t hang out with people very often. I can spend a weekend without talking. I can walk for hours without a destination. I avoid going to the gym on “normal” hours because there will be people there. I rarely miss being around anyone, even though I do relish in meeting my friends when I do meet them. Even so, to most of my friends and co-workers – I’m seen as a proficient networker, and an extrovert who enjoys being the life of the party and who’ll make sure there is one if there’s no party to be the life of. I would argue that I am both. The difference is performance. I view myself as more of the first than the latter, it definitely comes more easily to me, but I know how to “be” the second when it is needed (or when I feel like it). It’s basically putting on different shoes, or taking the stage to deliver some sweet death metal. This is where it becomes apparent that networking, or even socializing, is not a “talent”. It’s a skill. Some people have a better starting position due to previous life experiences, as with someone who’s good at drawing, but you’re not born an artist – nor are you born a networker. You need to learn how to be on a different position on the X/Y scale, and who you are when you are there.
So how do you improve on your networking skills? You practice. Luckily, there’s a lot written about this subject that’s easily available – google it – but I’ll summarize some of the strategies I use myself, and some preparations that will make networking easier. Below you’ll find a list of preparations you can use to make networking easier.
What to do
- Research: What is the event about, what kind of people will be there, what kind of setting is it? The more you know about where you’re going and what people will be there, the easier it is knowing what you could talk about. This might feel a bit stalkerish to people, but I find that it really helps to know a bit about who's doing what and with whom.
- Goals: Set concrete, measurable goals. Who are you looking to meet, and for what purpose? Knowing why you are going is important. One goal could be to introduce yourself to 10 people, and present what you are doing to them and see if there’s a win-win opportunity somewhere. Look for gatekeepers, people who have a good extended network that they could introduce you to. If you already know who you are looking to talk to, and why, it is easier to prepare for that specific conversation. If you know what you want out of an interaction, it’ll be easier to execute in order to get there.
- Manuscript: Have a “standard” manuscript for interactions. If you’re prepared for the most common questions and have a rough outline of what you’d answer it will help you get through the first “bump” of any conversation. If you’re asked to introduce yourself, what would you say? Prepare the first six seconds of your conversation (as an example, I usually introduce myself along the lines of “My name is Johan, and I work as business developer and/or COO of Gameport. Or, those are the fancy titles at least. To be honest I’m more of a PR-guy with janitorial duties, who try to help developers get their shit together. The last part is quite tough, considering I look like someone who tried to get down in to hells angels and didn’t make it because I didn’t have a large enough beard/my tattoos weren’t cool enough. Who are you?”
- Body language: Be aware of your body. Crossed arms, downward gaze does not invite people to come over and chat with you. Eyes up, open up your shoulders. This physical change also makes it easier for you to engage with people. If you feel that you’re slipping into “bad” form, take a breather, recharge and go back in. Don’t forget to check the other person as well – networking usually means touching base with a lot of people, so if you find yourself in a one-sided conversation where you’re doing most of the talking, be aware that the other person might be looking to talk to someone more than you tonight.
- Don’t socialize, solve: If you find networking hard or a source of anxiety, try to view it in a different light. You have an issue that you need to solve, a question you need to answer. Disconnecting a bit from the networking part and looking at it like a game or a performance with a purpose might help you relax.
- Have a FUBAR-plan: If everything goes wrong, have a plan in regards to how you’ll get out of the situation. How can you disconnect in a professional, smooth manner? Think about what you could say to get out of a conversation.
- Ask about the other person: If you think it’s hard to start a conversation to talk about what you’re doing, try the opposite. Ask about what they are doing, and let them chat about it until you feel comfortable enough to present your own agenda. Also, being curious about other people will help you find more interesting opportunities for both parties – you never know what you don’t know, and there’s only so much that can be learnt from googling.
- Humble brag: Don’t forget that you’re doing cool, interesting stuff. Tell people about it, and don’t play it down. There’s no need for big bravado, but it should show that you’re proud about what you’ve achieved.
- Soulmate: Find someone who looks a bit like you feel like you’d look if you hadn’t prepared for the event. It’s hard to work a room, and picking up on the people who don’t might fetch you an easier conversation.
- Know your timing: If you’re not a morning person, don’t go to morning networking events. Try to prioritize your networking events to when you feel like you’re on top of stuff. No need to be confused, anxious and tired.
- Get in early: Being early means that there’s less people. That might be helpful. Also, being early means that everyone is not already in conversation with someone else.
- Write a note: You got the conversation right, you got a card. Write a note about the person before engaging the next one. This will make it easier for you to get back to them later on, and tell them what a lovely night you had. (Reconnecting is important!)
- Take control of the event: If you have friends who are connected to the people you want to connect with, make sure that it happens by taking control of the event. Host something. This way you’ll be in charge of the surroundings, the people who’ll come and when it will happen. This will also make sure that you end up more comfortable, since you are the who’s deciding what’s going on. It doesn’t matter if it’s 60 people going to a thing you’re doing, or if it’s 4 people at a coffee place – the important part is that you’re in charge.
- Common interests: If you’ve done some research, try to find a common interest and steer the conversation towards it. It might be easier to talk about your business after you’ve discussed the greatness of the French black metal scene first.
- Find a networking buddy: If you can bring a co-worker to share the networking with it might be a way to make events feel less intimidating. Otherwise, if someone you’re chatting with seems like a nice match – see if you can hang out some more. Grab a bite, sync some parts of the event schedule.
- Everyone is confused and nervous: Alright, everyone might be a bit generalizing. Chances are though that a majority of people at any given conference or event does feel the same way like you about said events. Studies has shown that up to 50% of all Americans is self-identifying as an introvert, and in tech that percentage probably grows a bit.
- Know your limits: Don’t push yourself over the edge. Accept that you don’t thrive out of these occasions, and that it’s perfectly fine not to. If it’s been a long day/night – call it a day. This goes hand in hand with your goals. Also, if you feel like you’re being drained, but you’re not ready (or can’t) leave just yet, prepare a way to get away for a bit. If the event is 6 hours long (or in the case of GDC, a week) you will need to recharge at some point. How can you do that? It might be as easy as stepping outside and taking a 15-minute walk around the block for the shorter events, or it could be setting off a few hours of recharge time where you engage in whatever activity brings you energy. I tend to put on some noise or a bad show that’ll make some noise on my iPad and then just lie in bed and zone out for 2 hours, then shower and grab something to eat while I take a detour walk to the thing I need to go to.
Analyze the event
When you get back home, think it through. What went well? What didn’t go so well? Why? When you’ve reasoned about it enough, disable the emotions connected to it and put them away. You went to an event. You met 10 people that you had good conversations with. You were awkward with 2 people, and it felt dumb. You didn’t die, neither did they. Tomorrow there’ll be another day for you to expand your network and increase the chances of your business success. Don’t forget to reconnect with Dajana in a few days, and mention that thing you thought about and wrote down as a note in regards to the conversation you had. Good. Sleep tight.