If you're a more reserved person, you may feel like networking isn't for you. The thought of introducing yourself to strangers can be daunting. Networking can also seem artificial or forced.
But networking is a skill like any other, and there are many ways to improve your networking abilities, even if you're on the shyer side. Changing your perception of networking can help. Don't think of it in terms of selling yourself or your employer, or as a way to meet the most people and collect the most business cards. Instead, view it as simply making connections to broaden your personal and professional reach via new friends, potential mentors, and future employers.
Here are other ways shy people can make networking effective:
- Practice. If networking isn't a strong area for you, start sharpening the skill now. Start with body language, which says far more than words can. "Be careful of body language from start to finish in conversations," said David Almonte, CPA, an audit manager with DiSanto, Priest & Co., an accounting firm based in Warwick, R.I.
- Realize that others are nervous about it as well. "The other person is probably just as uncomfortable as you are and will probably appreciate and respect you for initiating the conversation," said Denny Faurote, CPA (inactive), founder of the Faurote Group, an Indianapolis-based professional training and coaching firm.
- Have go-to questions. Think about what you'll say in advance. It's OK to enter events with go-to statements you rely on multiple times. An easy starter is to introduce yourself and state where you work. Then ask the other person for the same information. "People love to talk about themselves," said Kristen Rampe, CPA, principal of Kristen Rampe Consulting, a leadership development and coaching firm.
- Avoid sensitive topics. Most people know to skip religion and politics because those discussions can easily become heated. But also steer clear of bad-mouthing your employer or anyone else because it looks unprofessional.
- Be early. Walking into a crowded room can be intimidating, so Almonte tries to arrive at his events early. You can use this chance to scope out the room. "By being one of the first people in the room, the conversation comes to you as people arrive, versus the other way around," he said. Approaching groups can be stressful, so look for people standing alone.
- Know when to end it. The hardest part of networking may be knowing how to wrap up conversations. If you have one great discussion the entire time, that's fine. But if the other person answers with short answers or seems uninterested or if you run out of things to say, you can move to the next person. Rampe suggested looking at the other person's feet. "If their feet are pointed out of the conversation, it's a cue to wrap it up for both of you," she said.
- Follow up. The ultimate goal of networking is to help each other in the future, so don't forget to follow up. Faurote carries notecards to jot down notes after the conversation is over. He also adds new connections to his Outlook contacts within 48 hours. It's acceptable to quickly offer a LinkedIn connection.
Work on eye contact. Too much can make the other person feel stared down, but too little can make you appear nervous or dishonest. Keep your back straight. Don't cross your arms because that may lead others to perceive you as unapproachable.
You don't have to be at a networking event to perfect your conversations. "There is no better place to practice small talk than at a family outing with family and friends," Almonte pointed out.
Ask why people are at the event or how they chose their line of work, Faurote said, adding that personal phones should be put away during discussions. If you're at a conference, ask people what session they attended last and what they thought of it.
Don't go into high-pressure mode to score a deal. "Nothing turns me off more at a networking event than pushy sales-type people," Almonte said. "I love networking events that elicit building relationships versus building sales."
Try something like: "It was great to meet you, I hope you enjoy the rest of the event." or "It was nice to talk to you. I'm going to go get a glass of water."
As the conversation winds down, tell people that you'd love to continue the discussion at another time. Ask for contact information and let them know you'll be in touch. "The most important tip here is to follow through on what you say," Almonte said. "If you say you will reach out to set up a meeting, do so in a timely manner."
Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.