Networking for Introverts

How to break out of your shell
APR 2020
Morgan
J.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

Editor’s Note: This post was written and submitted to us before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, but we believe that the advice given here is still highly relevant in the time of quarantine  – when both group and one-on-one meetings are as important as ever.

Networking. For some of us introverts out there, it’s a dreaded word. Large crowds of strangers, small talk and formalities, and prompts to “tell me about yourself” abound. For individuals who prefer more focused, one on one conversations or aren’t quite fond of singing their own praises, networking sessions can be quite a stressful endeavor.

While social anxiety may play a role in this aversion to networking, some of us are simply introverted. While a true definition of introversion remains elusive, it is generally accepted that introverts are more introspective, preferring solitary and calm environments to highly stimulating ones. That’s not to say that introverts don’t enjoy the company of others. As a self-proclaimed “social introvert,” I find that I feel my best when I’m occupied and spending time with others, so long as I have adequate time in between to recharge.

I used to absolutely dread networking. However, throughout my college years and the graduate school interview process, I began to crack the code to networking confidently and productively. Here’s what I learned:

1. Take baby steps

If the idea of being in a large room filled with individuals in your field is overwhelming, practice by speaking to just one at a time. Professors, graduate students, and even undergraduates can be great resources. Maybe you’re interested in exploring a new field or want to know what it’s like to work in a certain type of lab. Reach out to someone at your institution who may be able to answer your questions and schedule a short one on one meeting – most people will be more than happy to help out. Think actively about what you’re hoping to learn from the conversation by doing some research and preparing questions in advance. In the meeting, use these questions to guide the conversation and jot down any important points. You can also note some of the questions you were asked so that you can reflect on them later. While this interaction does not recapitulate the bustling environment at a career fair or a networking session, it is an extremely valuable way to make connections and practice speaking with someone new in a less overwhelming environment. I have taken this approach as part of my lab search, and so far have not only made many valuable connections, but also built up the confidence to interact with some very well known professionals in my field.

2. Practice on your own

YouTube is my guilty pleasure. Despite the abundance of shows on Netflix that everyone tells me I absolutely must watch, I find myself scrolling for YouTube videos on topics ranging from city living to entrepreneurship and from fashion to science. (I have a point, I promise.) The prominence of YouTube and other social media platforms has been accompanied by the rise of “vloggers,” individuals who literally make a living by speaking to an imaginary audience on camera for an extended period of time. Vloggers verbally narrate their experiences into thin air, not expecting a direct response, but knowing that someone will be listening on the other side.

Ok Morgan – so why do I care? If you think about it, vloggers are in the best possible scenario to express themselves in conversation. With ample time to speak, they can think carefully about the ideas they are trying to convey, and how best to do so. Without being able to respond to direct feedback from a listener, they anticipate questions and concerns to craft their narrative accordingly. Think about it. What would you say if the social conventions and time constraints of a networking scenario melted away? Spend some time thinking about your narrative as it relates to your program in school, career, a hobby, etc. Practice on your own, then with a family member or a friend in a more traditional conversational setting.

3. Look the part

Look good, feel good – it really is that simple. Confidence is key, and it’s much easier to focus on a conversation when you aren’t worried about your hair looking wonky. Think a bit in advance about what outfit you will wear and how you want to style your hair or do your makeup. There’s no use stressing about it right before.

4. Time it right

Timing is everything, and for a networking event that is no exception. If you are rushing from one event to the next all day — especially if you’ve spent a large portion of that time in social situations — you are bound to be drained once it’s actually time to network. If possible, try to craft your schedule such that you have time to decompress and/or prepare during the hour preceding an event. This could mean answering emails instead of sitting in a meeting, or jotting down some conversation starters. Towards the end of the event, don’t be afraid to make an exit if your social meter has been expended — you don’t have to stick around until the very last minute to have a productive time. As I’ve learned from experience, “Wow, you look tired,” is generally not the best way for a conversation to begin.

5. Start with the right attitude

Every interaction is in your hands, and there is nothing to be gained from being timid. Maybe you’re interviewing for graduate school or are the newbie in a lab or office where you know nobody. Regardless of your status, going into a conversation believing that you are lesser than, that you don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute, or that you will come off as awkward is a surefire way to surrender your confidence. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that, just as you are striving to engage with others, others are striving to engage with you. Even if an interaction doesn’t go as planned, you can reflect on what you’d like to do better next time. If all else fails, remember that confidence is not, “they’ll like me.” Confidence is, “I’ll be fine if they don’t.”

6. Stay in the moment

One of the worst mistakes to make during networking is to get so caught up in evaluating how the interaction is going that you forget to pay attention to what other people are saying. Practice active listening and stay in the moment to have a productive conversation. If you’re feeling lost in a crowd, ask for help if you need it. Instead of sticking with the one or two people you know the entire time, ask to be introduced to one of their connections so that you can branch out on your own.

Happy networking, and good luck!