This article was originally published on Sohuis.com, a brand consultancy for female founders.
I’m a quiet, reserved person. My speaking voice is low-volume, and it’s a challenge for me to be loud. Letting my guard down isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Neither is small talk. And I’m easily overwhelmed by crowds.
If you’re anything like this, you’ve probably had a similar, not-so-great experience with networking. Most typical networking events feel like they’re just not for you. They’re for those people who know what “working a room” is, for voices with distance-covering gravitas, or for women who’ve mastered the art of pulling out a business card in a not-at-all-awkward way.
For a long time, I battled with feeling like an inferior person at networking events, because they felt inherently better suited to people who are louder and more immediately personable. So, I eventually stopped my networking efforts.
But then I started running a freelance business full time. It turns out that working alone, while soothing for my introverted self, gets lonely pretty quickly.
Even though I had friends I’d regularly see and clients I’d talk to daily, I missed having colleague-type relationships. I needed people in my life who had a similar lifestyle that I could talk to—in person—about the joys and challenges of freelancing or running a small business.
Online conversations weren’t enough, and since I was new to my city, I didn’t know a lot of people who could introduce me to other female business owners. My only option was to get back out there and network.
Luckily, since then, I’ve learned how to make networking work for me, without faking a bubbly personality or trying to compete with loud voices. These days, networking finally feels natural and…surprisingly fun.
I haven’t changed. But the way I approach networking has.
Here are the 5 important things I do to make networking enjoyable as a quiet & reserved person:
I don’t try to talk to everyone
Most networking advice tells you to circulate a room. Mingle with one group, identify common ground, pass out your business card and then effortlessly move on to the next group.
Instead, I do the opposite. If I feel a connection with the person or small group I’m talking to, I keep talking to them. Sometimes I only talk to one or two people for the entire event.
Even though this means I miss out on meeting a lot of people, I’ve found that navigating events this way results in more real connections down the road—because I’ll actually remember everyone I spoke with. If we really hit it off, I even come away with a new friendship. That’s much more valuable than a wallet full of business cards.
I stop fighting my awkwardness
As a shy person, it’s guaranteed that I’m going to feel uncomfortable in a room full of people I don’t know. My kneejerk reaction is either to try to fake a sense of unshakeable self-possession or to ignore feelings of insecurity, self-doubt and discomfort.
But those feelings only get worse when you try to fight them or bury them. Instead, I had to learn how to just stand in the conversation lull or at the fringe of a group and allow my discomfort to exist.
Consciously noticing when I feel awkward and deliberately not fighting it has made me feel less afraid of the social aspects of networking and more accepting of who I am. Ultimately, that’s made all the difference in whether or not I enjoy networking.
I make myself a regular at a few networking groups
The scariest part of networking is having to start conversations with people you know nothing about.
Becoming a “regular” at the events put on by certain groups goes a long way toward eliminating this aspect. After the first one or two events, you’ll find that you recognize people right away—and your shared history gives you a lot more to talk about organically.
Also, being around the same people month after month is a foolproof way for shy people like me to forge memorable connections. While I may not be able to open myself up in the first thirty minutes of knowing someone, after meeting them the second or third time, I start to let my guard down—and my real self can shine.
I ask people to meet up later one-on-one
We all know that you’re supposed to “follow up” with people you meet at networking events. However, it wasn’t until recently that I realized it took more than sending an email or following someone on Twitter to really create a connection.
It’s intimidating to email someone you met briefly to ask them to meet you for coffee or drinks later that week. But now I do it on the regular. More often than not, they’re into the idea.
One-on-one conversations are where I thrive, so using networking events as a launch pad to more laid back, intimate hangouts has allowed me to make friendships and earn referral business that I never would have otherwise.
I don’t network because I “should”
In the past, I treated networking like a chore. “It’s good for business!” I’d mumble as I dragged myself to another event I didn’t really want to go to. Those experiences weren’t fun, and they made me want to network even less than I had before.
Now, I interrogate my reasons for going to a networking event. Is it because I’m truly interested in meeting other people in this group? Am I feeling a need to connect right now? Or is it that I’m feeling guilty for not having gone to a networking event in a while?
The first two are great reasons. The last one has, historically, led to a ton of wasted time and negative experiences. It’s important for me to be clear on why I’m doing what I’m doing—especially if it involves connecting with other humans.
When I’m networking because I feel like I “should be,” all I’m thinking about is going home and crossing it off my to-do list. Likely, I won’t be very attentive to the people around me.
On the other hand, when I’m there to make friends or out of organic curiosity, my posture is more open, my expression is inviting and I’m genuinely interested in my conversation partners. The second version of me is how I want to be remembered.
When I tried to fake confidence or be likable to as many people as possible, I failed. Initially, it was hard not to think this meant there was something wrong with who I am. Everyone else seemed to be nailing this networking thing—why couldn’t I?
It wasn’t until I took control of my networking experience that things started changing for the better.
Giving myself permission to do things a little differently has not only made networking easier and more fulfilling, but it has also—ironically—made me feel world’s more confident and likable.
If you’ve ever felt like your personality was holding you back from networking effectively, the best advice I have is to create your own rulebook. Figure out how to connect with new people in a way that feels most true to who you are, and then lean into it.
If you're in Los Angeles & want to meet over coffee, I'd love to.
And if you’re not in LA, video chats work in a pinch. I’ve come to really value talking with other business owners or freelancers about how they’re doing things, so don’t hesitate to….