You enter a crowded room. Grab a coffee. Furtively glance around. Do a lap of the room. Mildly panic. Down your coffee (burning your mouth). Pop to the loo. And repeat.
Sound familiar? I got stuck in that negative networking loop when I started work more than 15 years ago. For me, the thought of wandering into a room of strangers and striking up a conversation was, quite frankly, terrifying. I’m not particularly shy and (hopefully) not too awkward when I do meet new people, but I can find the whole process rather overwhelming. Apparently, this means I’m an introvert.
Stefan Thomas, author of Business Networking for Dummies, explained: “Although an introvert is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘shy, reticent person’ it is more than that. It is someone who finds large groups of people exhausting. Someone who often prefers their own company.
“For these reasons, the frustrating and paradoxical outcome is that introverts often become the best networkers, and are most overwhelmed by the idea of networking. Rather than talking about themselves, an introvert will allow the other person to talk. This can be used to a massive advantage in networking.”
A lot has changed for me in the last 15 years. I now work full-time as ‘the freelance writer who gets tech’ and I’ve upped my networking game to build my business.
Networking is now less terrifying, and I would even admit to enjoying it. Here are some strategies that my fellow freelancers and I have adopted to overcome those jitters.
Build it up
Practice networking in a safe and low-impact environment. Co-working spaces are great for this as the majority are focused on building communities.
The Cambridge Business Lounge is one of the friendliest small spaces I’ve worked in. Also, London’s Huckletree spaces house vibrant communities of freelancers and start-ups, and they run some great in-house events.
An event at a co-working space is a good networking opportunity. If you work in the space for the day, you’ll already know a few faces and have acclimatised to the environment.
Do you flounder when someone asks you what you do? Don’t overdo it, but come up with a few opening lines to describe you and your business ahead of an event.
Also, prepare some open-ended questions that you can ask anyone you meet. For example; ask about their interest in the event and their work. You don’t need to worry about saying anything clever.
Brad Burton, founder of UK business network 4Networking, said: “Everyone was nervous once. Including me. It’s a strange thing to do: walk into a room full of strangers and have to win them over.
“So don’t. It’s just a conversation. Don’t look at it (initially at least) as anything more or less.”
If a list of attendees and speakers is available, see if there’s anyone you know or want to connect with.
Rachael Chiverton, who runs Cashflow College, said: “Most networking groups will have their ‘leadership’ or ‘organiser’ profiles online somewhere.
“Connect with them before the meeting on Facebook, Twitter or by giving them a call. Explain it’s your first time and you can feel uncomfortable in new situations.”
High-profile events usually incorporate Facebook, LinkedIn and maybe a Twitter hashtag so you can start connecting with other attendees before you arrive. You could even put your Twitter handle on your name badge.
Arrive early and relax
It’s a lot more intimidating to walk into a room where everyone is already grouped off and chatting away. So, arrive early, introduce yourself to the PR team (who are a useful resource during an event) and find a suitable spot to stand.
“Remember that all you need to do at the event itself is start the conversation. Set the bar low and don’t put yourself under pressure to make any sales on the day. Your only goal is that some new people know you and that you might take the relationship forward after the event,” Thomas said.
It can also be helpful to have a networking buddy. Together, you can naturally draw others into your conversation, particularly if your associate is more extroverted or holds expertise that you don’t.
Take some time out
If your brain starts to buzz, find a quiet corner to gather your thoughts. Make some time in the diary to recover after an event too.
Thomas added: “I am exhausted after events. These days I acknowledge that I need some private time, some time in my own head, as soon as possible afterwards.”
Make notes and follow up
It’s easy to forget who you’ve met and the conversations you’ve had.
“Make notes from any conversations so that you can follow up personally, reminding the contact of the conversation. Use your natural curiosity to your advantage,” Thomas continued.
Steven Timberlake, co-founder of sales management company SalesRadar, said: “Over the years, I’ve learnt there are two good outcomes from networking; either winning a client, or creating an advocate who is informed about your business and will happily recommend you.
“The only way you can create advocates is by continuing a dialogue, doing your follow ups and building those solid long-term relationships.”
Networking is a skill you need to hone.
Richard Eaton, who has relied on networking to build his software business, Appware, said: “When I first started networking I was genuinely scared to death, and could hardly speak in the introductions part of the meeting as I was so nervous.
“But by consistently showing up and doing this more and more, I got better at it, and the less of an issue it became.”
Find your own way
Effective networking is never forced. If you’re an introvert, play to your strengths and find the networking events that suit you – don’t try to be anyone else.
Eaton added: “As someone with a technical rather than a sales background, I never use networking as an opportunity to launch into a sales pitch to people. I simply use it to get to know people, and try to help and educate them in my field.
“Building these kinds of relationships rather than trying to sell to people in a meeting is far more powerful.”
So, relax and be yourself, but maybe a little bit braver.