I often tell people that if I could harness the confidence I feel with a keyboard at head-in-sand.jpgmy hands, networking and marketing myself at social functions would always be a breeze. However, even the thought of making professional connections over email is as unsavory and exhausting to me as doing it in person. What gives?

I’m not a shy person. I’ve learned to admit that I’m an introvert, and I’m greatly outnumbered by extroverts who make up nearly 75% of the population. Jonathan Rauch at the Atlantic Monthly fleshed out the often-misunderstood distinction between shyness and introversion quite nicely. Shy people are anxious or fearful of social situations: introverts think a lot; prefer to be self-reliant; and require greater energy to talk about things other than feelings and ideas — not exacty outgoing traits that the business world likes to reward.

Small talk is essentially abominable living hell, torture and suffering for an introvert. It truly is, and not because of unwillingness to participate, initiate, or give time to others. Introverts have slightly different brain chemistry that makes them susceptible to over-stimulation from the demands of engaging casually with the outside world. Extroverts: imagine five people talking to you at the same time, nonstop. That’s what introductions to large groups or being social in a crowd feels like for an introvert — an overwhelming experience that requires extensive recovery time.

Research for this post taught me that all this time I’ve mistakenly attributed small talk and outgoingness to the bulk of successful networking and self-marketing. Part 1 of this series is meant to convince introverts that they too can successfully meet the right people who can help advance his or her own career.

Take comfort introverts: You are not weird, just different. Here’s how to prepare yourself for successful networking.

Bravely face the cold, hard truth

“Today’s careers are made and broken by one’s ability to network,” says Penelope Trunk. “I know that people who are bad at networking think it’s not fair that the world rewards networking so much. But that’s the way the world is. You’re not going to change it by whining.”

Right, so make lemonade from these lemons. Rob at BusinessPundit suggests that you view, “Networking [as] an investment, not a nuisance… By putting in the time to build your network, you save time when you need to get things done. Well networked people don’t have to waste time firing off random emails to people they don’t know, buying leads or industry lists, or hunting through hundreds of resumes for the right candidate. Pick your poison. Do you want to put in the time now, or later?”

Um… now sounds like the better choice.

Take an approachable view of networking so you can start

Rob convinced me networking isn’t so bad if you accept that, “At first you have to kiss a lot of frogs.” Well, I’ve certainly kissed enough frogs to fill a pond the size of Alaska (in networking and otherwise) — what’s a few more frogs going to hurt?

He continues, “Sometimes you have to start by picking events at random. You spend an hour in a very uncomfortable setting, but you learn what to go to and what to skip. Eventually you find a few people or events that you like.”

Making such a subtle change in attitude has already lessened the dread I experience when just thinking about networking. I figure that if I have a bad networking experience, at least I’ll have fodder for a good post or story at a dinner party. Or I can just make fun of someone in my head, which is just as entertaining.

You wouldn’t go mountain climbing without the right tools and enough practice. Introverts should be similarly prepared for networking

It’s hard for an introvert to talk about his or her self, or about something they’re not passionate about. That doesn’t mean an introvert is incapable of connecting with others for professional advancement. Nancy Ancowitz at CareerJournal explains, “As an introvert, you can use the power of self-reflection, contemplation, and the ability to listen carefully to your audience to great benefit. You actually have certain advantages, including strengths at building relationships, creating a vision and strategizing.”

Used correctly, your heightened sensitivity is a handy tool for trying to discover interesting things about other people, something Penelope suggests in “How to start a quality conversation with someone you don’t know.” Basically, show people that you care to listen about what’s important to them; worry less about how you’re being perceived. This is one of those rare “easier done than said” cases.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie taught me how to show people I care without being fake. Simply focus on something you find interesting about someone and ask questions. People are often happy to talk about themselves if the person asking questions is genuinely interested. Even introverts will respond with enthusiasm to a perceptive listener. Just by putting the focus on someone else with your pointed questions will make you seem like an interesting person that people want to stay in touch with.

There’s one catch: implementing all this advice is worthless without continual practice. I read How to Win Friends and Influence People six years ago. For about two years, I had a routine down for meeting people. I usually started with a genuine compliment, or a sincere question, and pleasant conversation proceeded from there. As time went on, I became complacent with my newfound ability to engage with people and I stopped practicing with each opportunity that felt right. Years went by, and I reverted back to my clumsy, maladroit ways in large gatherings. Hence, here I am, having to relearn how to be engaging and network all over again.

The hardest part of networking is practice. Develop a conversation routine or script for when you meet new people. Make it comfortable for you, and practice every chance you get!

Work smarter not harder for actual networking and self-marketing

So how does an introvert meet the right people with grace and energy? How can they maintain these professional relationships? Easily. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series: Networking and Self-Marketing the Thriving Introvert Way.