As students, we are inundated with emails from the school about “must attend” networking events, or special guest speakers. We should be grateful that big name companies such as Deloitte, J.P Morgan Chase, and Citibank want to hear from us students, but there is a group of us whose chests tighten and anxiety rises when we hear the word “networking.” I am referring to introverted students who would almost certainly be at home reading a book rather than in a large ballroom with 200 other students circling around the outnumbered recruiters and other employers like sharks. In many of my first networking experiences, I would stride into Duques Hall, awkwardly fill out my name always aligned a little too far left on the “Hello, my name is…” sticker, then quickly shuffle over to the corner of the room where I would stand for far too long chatting to a friend from class. Everyone looked like they were enjoying their time, talking to recruiters and asking questions that were way over my head. At the end of the event, I would walk away feeling guilty that I had not made more of the situation, but proud that I at least showed up. Questions fill my head: “What did that mean? What should I ask? Have I been standing here too long? Do I know anyone here? Do people think it is weird that I am standing here alone?”
Breathe. Networking is a skill just like any other that takes time, patience, and practice. Unlike introverts, extroverts get energy from interacting with other people and through making connections. On the other hand, introverts prefer one-on-one interactions instead of group interaction. The key to becoming more comfortable with networking is to identify your strengths as an introvert and use these in your experience. I will cover a few approaches that have worked for me; however, it is important to note that everyone’s strengths are different and may not configure to these suggestions.
Have short conversations with people and get contact information.
Most of my anxiety was caused by the hordes of people that would crowd around a single employer. I often found myself on the edge of conversations contemplating whether to join or flee in search of a smaller group. It is hard to have a deep conversation at large networking events, and I find it more helpful to have a short conversation with someone to discover who they are and what their responsibilities are at an organization. A trick I use to do this is to excuse myself from a conversation by saying, “Such and such suggested we meet, but I need to run in a minute, so I was hoping I could get your card and follow up later. Thank you for your time.” After you get their contact information, follow up at a later date to set up an information interview over lunch or coffee. This way you can create an environment that is more fitting to your personality and strengths. At the same time, if you find yourself involved in a deep conversation, focus on keeping the conversation going, but be aware to not take up too much of the other person’s time, especially if other students are waiting to network.
Big groups scare me. It takes a lot of energy and effort to just join the conversation of one group. I know my strength lies in one-on-one conversations and presentation, though. To take advantage of this, I focus less on the size of a networking group and more on getting an employer’s contact information. I set up a lunch or coffee meeting using this contact information, so I can use my natural ability to talk to this employer and learn from them. Additionally, this one-on-one meeting gives me a better chance at making an impression and growing my network, which is the end goal of networking. Employers meet hundreds of students at these networking events, and it is hard for them to remember you unless you make yourself standout. This is a heavy task for introverts, but a one-on-one meeting gives you the environment to better showcase your strengths and make in impression.
Use the “buddy-system.”
If you are like me, you want to be able to go to a networking event with more confidence and comfort. A good beginning step that I used was a variation of the “buddy system” reminiscent of elementary school field trips. Find a friend to come to the event with you, or maybe invite that person you are standing in the corner with to go join a group conversation together. Not only are you expanding your student network, but you also take much of the attention off you when you join a conversation. I often found it helpful to have a friend with me in a conversation because I could relate our combined experience together in a class or organization. For instance, “Kim here and I faced a similar situation in such and such organization when we were tasked with this initiative.” While sharing your experience with the employer, you also display your networking skills by including a fellow student in the conversation. This is a good technique to start with, and it is okay to continue bringing a friend to a networking event, but agree with that person to go in separate directions for at least part of the time.
Practice, practice, practice.
Like anything else, networking is a skill that requires practice to become comfortable with. We introverts need to consciously practice more than our counterparts because it is not something that comes naturally to us. On the other hand, we have other natural abilities that, when aware of and used correctly, make us stand out to recruiters and employers.
In the end, a network is not only advantageous in business, but also necessary. Whether your network is created through traditional networking events or through the less conventional one-on-one meetings, a network helps you find mentors, employers, and opportunities. I hope my quick tips help you in your quest to grow your network.