Most people find networking to be a somewhat uncomfortable endeavor. But the task of meeting and greeting strangers en masse—and ultimately asking them for business—can be far more painful for introverts, according to research. Extroverts, who tend to excel at building contacts outside their organization, shouldn’t be the only ones using the skill to earn more and advance in their careers.
For introverts who feel taxed by large groups and long, awkward conversations, experts say the right approach is to carefully manage interactions and play to their strengths: small group settings, targeted meetings, and selling oneself with a light touch. Here are some rules of the road to networking for shy types:
Emails work better than cold calls.
Not only are cold calls and big events the hardest ways for introverts to network—they’re also the least effective. Cold calls can feel aggressive, intrusive, and unpleasant for both the networker and the networked. And big events usually result in talking to too many people superficially for too little time.
By contrast, networking via emails and small meetings involves the kind of interactions introverts excel in: research, thoughtful writing, and personal interactions. Introverts may also find email easier to tackle because the lesser effort is less likely to drain them of energy.
When reaching out, don’t “spray and pray.”
It’s always easier to network with people who have a built-in connection. In that sense, alumni networks are a networking goldmine. Many schools have surprisingly sophisticated tools that let you sort by location and industry. Former employers can also be fruitful, especially in industries like consulting and sales that rely heavily on networking to win business.
Do your research on the people you reach out to, and find a mutual interest. The less random the request, the more it will seem worth their while.
Never ask for a job.
Making too big an ask too early on alienates people. Keep the ask as lightweight as possible, which also helps respect people’s time.
For instance, ask for advice, a coffee, or their ideas on a subject. Agree to travel to them, or to meet somewhere convenient to them. People enjoy offering their expertise, especially when it doesn’t require much effort.
Once you’ve established an easy rapport, you’re more likely to be top of mind when an open job comes along.
Don’t burn yourself out on every event.
It’s worth doing a cost-benefit analysis of which events truly suit your needs. Otherwise, you risk spreading the love too thin and exhausting yourself in the process, according to Dorie Clark, a professor at Duke’s Fuqua school of business and self-described introvert in the Harvard Business Review:
Running the numbers is particularly important for introverts, because even if the alternative isn’t something overtly productive like writing a new business proposal, the cost side of the equation can be steep: you may be exhausting yourself emotionally for hours or days afterward. Ask yourself who’s likely to attend, and whether they’re your target audience (however you define that — potential clients, interesting colleagues, etc.). Then follow up by asking how likely it is that you’ll actually get to connect with them. Large, loud events hinder your chances.
Burning out from too many events could turn an introvert away from networking entirely.
Keep it short and make an exit.
People fear commitment, especially when they’re networking. So don’t try to form a deep connection with someone promising at a big event, suggests Posse founder Rebekah Campbell (paywall). Instead, dart in for a short conversation, say you only have a few minutes, but that you want their contact information to follow up later. Then set up a lunch or coffee.
Meet, rest, repeat.
Another of Clark’s coping mechanisms after mass meetings is to take a few days to recuperate. Batching her social time and private time into chunks helps her focus on others when she’s with them, and then center herself when things quiet down:
Batching my activities allows me to focus, and alternating between social and quiet time enables me to be at my best when I do interact with people. Even if a networking opportunity appears interesting, I’m likely to decline if it’s on the heels of several busy days; I’ve come to understand I won’t be able to tap its full potential because I’ll feel emotionally run down.