Networking events for introverts

If you’ve never been to a networking event because you think it’s a little weird to strike up conversations with complete strangers, almost as if they’re the professional equivalent to chatting people up, then you’re right. It is weird for those who are introverted or shy. However, for HR professionals, or indeed any professional, these events can be so exciting, that help build working relationships, opening up new opportunities to learn, share good practices, and progress your career.

If you feel incredibly nervous about this idea of torture for the socially awkward, then please believe me it’s not as bad as it seems once you’ve dived in head first. Here are some key points and tips about surviving your first networking event.

Everyone’s a stranger – including you

First and foremost, remember that a good networking event is one where no one knows each other. When showing up to these things and seeing people talk with each other, it’s understandable to think that you’re the only one who doesn’t know anyone, almost like you’re back at school and see all the cliques around you that you’re not part of.

Remembering they are all strangers will in turn remind you of something else – they’re here for the same reason as you, to network with new people. It’s easy to forget this but reminding yourself of this before and during the event will begin to de-weird striking up a conversation with a stranger.

For introverts or shy people it can be uncomfortable to strike up a conversation with a stranger in any environment, but at networking events, it’s expected. You have a free pass to ‘be weird’ and say hello to someone you don’t know and asking their name.

Introductions

So how do you strike up a conversation with someone? Luckily, as mentioned, these strangers expect to have another stranger – i.e. you – come up and say hello and begin a conversation. Keeping a strong hold to this thought helped me with the first 5 seconds of a new conversation.

You take a dive into the abyss with your introduction, a simple ‘Hi, my name is Bob’, that’s all that’s needed to break the ice. Before the 5 seconds are up, the stranger responds similarly, providing their name and asking what you do.

Phew. That’s all it takes. Crisis over. This isn’t dating. They’re not going to look you up and down, roll their eyes, and walk off leaving you and your extended hand hanging. They’ll know what you’re doing; you want to start a conversation with them, get to know them and their work, and to discuss similar interests.

In terms of actually approaching people, I find three particular strategies help me the most:

  1. Saying hi to someone on their own – they’ll be relieved not to be seen on their own;
  2. Making a passing comment to someone nearby who is, for example, at the bar or pinching hors d’oeuvres, like ‘try the mushrooms, they’re delicious’ before saying ‘Hi, my name is…’;
  3. Or, well into the event, and you’re feeling a bit adventurous, joining into a group conversation that includes someone you already know from one of the first two approaches.

Keeping the conversation going

Make sure that once you have introduced yourself you have a mental list of questions you can ask the new person. (Most) People love talking about themselves, and the quickest way to make a conversation comfortable at the earliest point is to ask questions about them and really get to know them and their work.

Laying this foundation will make the conversation flow with little or no effort, and lead on to follow up questions and new topics naturally.

The questions I find help me lay this foundation are:

  • What do you do?
  • Where do you work?
  • Is this your first time at one of these events?
  • Did you travel up here today?
  • Are you staying up here in <insert city name> for much longer after the event?
  • How are you finding the event, discovered any exciting new contacts?

These all break the second layer of ice that all open up to more follow up questions based on the answer. The trick is, as with any networking event, is talk to them because you’re genuinely interested.

Your goal for the event might be to discover new contacts, what they can do for you, and what you can do for them, but this shouldn’t be the reason to start a conversation.

This sounds a bit contradictory, but I have always found the most interesting contacts I have built up were from friendly and interesting conversations that didn’t have a hidden agenda.

I believe rapport can authentically be developed by showing genuine interest in both the person you’re speaking to, and what they have to say, and it is this rapport that can lead onto fantastic working relationships.

Working the room to seek out only those of instant benefit is not the idea of these network events and the inauthenticity will eventually expose you as a network shark. Have interest in people first, enjoy a nice conversation with someone new, even if nothing comes of it. But if something does come of it, it will be built on authenticity.

Chemistry

Like any conversation between two people, there is going to be chemistry (not in the romantic sense obv). This was another thought I consciously held onto when speaking with new people. They are just that: people.

And some people gel, some people don’t. So when striking up a conversation, remind yourself it is 100% completely natural and acceptable if conversation doesn’t flow between you and them.

When this happens you must save your own confidence and mental stamina by cutting them off. Venturing outside your comfort zone is putting you in a vulnerable position which means any negative experience, like struggling to keep awkward conversation going, will impact you on a disproportionate scale. Once this happens, it in turn takes a disproportionately longer time to recover.

You needn’t be rude to them. It isn’t their fault, and it isn’t yours. For your own mental preservation, you can simply excuse yourself to the toilet or to the bar. Don’t say you need to make a call or talk to someone else because it suggests you want to talk to someone better than them.

If you were on the receiving end, it’ll hurt like hell. Like I said, it’s not their fault the conversation isn’t working, so be respectful of them but also to your confidence by leaving courteously.

Follow up

Following up on really interesting conversations is a must-do in order to maintain a new professional relationship.

If you would like to carry on a conversation, or follow them on social media to hear more of their thoughts on a particular specialism, or even introduce them to someone from your own network that they would find helpful, swapping business cards and connecting with them on social media are the two sure ways of doing this.

With business cards that are now cheap and easy to make, and the growing popularity of online presence through social media, these shouldn’t be too hard to do.

What’s crucial for the effectiveness of this however is making sure you’re quick to do it. A day or two after meeting is the ideal timescale you’re looking for.

A really useful tip that proves popular with anyone I share my business card with is to include a simple blank text box somewhere on the card with ‘Where/When did we meet?’ above it.

This way, they can quickly make a note of when and where they met you as a reminder for when it inevitably gets lost amongst the other business cards they’ve collected. Here’s how I did mine:

Card

 

Recovery

One last tip – make sure you recover after an event like this. Introverts need to be on their own and recharge after ‘peopling’ so it’s important to book a day or two in your schedule immediately afterwards to deflate.

As fun as these events are, they’re mentally exhausting, especially if you’re not used to being outside your comfort zone for so long.

My experience of my first networking event, like a lot of things outside my comfort zone, was way less scary than my imagination made them out to be.

Going head first into it – or the ripping-off-the-plaster technique – is, I find, the best way to avoid hesitation and procrastination, the two things that delay you getting to a point where you realise it’s not as bad as you thought.

I do hope that these coping mechanisms help you overcome your feeling of social awkwardness in what is a really fun and inspiring way of meeting like-minded professionals.

Just understand the key principles of why people are there (to network with people like you), what they expect (for people like you to say ‘hi’ out of the blue, literally as soon as eye contact is made), and what you can learn (the people, their work, and their thoughts on mutual areas of interest).

Good luck!

 

Dealing with people more senior than you

Regardless of your role now and in the future, you will always have to deal with people more senior than you (until you hit the big time and become CEO) so it’s important to understand how you emotionally deal with these people. It’s also important for me to clarify that when I say ‘senior’, I mean in role or position, not in years. 

Of course, each senior person is different; it may be easier to deal with people more senior than you than others, but sometimes it can feel intimidating, even for those who don’t consider themselves as introverts. For that reason (and so I can create a typing shortcut), we’ll call this particular group of people more senior than you as ‘the Seniors’ (excluding those who don’t necessarily make you feel intimidated).

One of the first things to assume when you’re dealing with the Seniors is that they too are human beings. This is both incredibly obvious, and yet effortlessly forgotten. For that reason, going back a step before this consideration is to check your thought pattern that is making you feel worked up and intimidated.

Emotional intelligence

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot on emotional intelligence (or E.I., emotional quotient, E.Q.) and part of what makes someone more emotionally intelligent is to keep their thought patterns in check. So much thinking and worrying can occur out of habit and subconsciously. It just runs on autopilot while you control your conscious processes (eg panicking, getting worked up, acting defensively). But although your thoughts run on autopilot, the products of them are certainly present and conscious; feeling intimidated, feeling like you’re not good enough, feeling like you’re going to be ridiculed for knowing less than they do, feeling like the gap between you and them in terms on seniority is proportionate to the gap in knowledge, intelligence or capability. All of those fun things.

This is why it’s so important to listen to the thought patterns being created in the background without your knowing because their effects are the very things holding you back from performing confidently, and therefore keeping them in check is an important way of dealing with Seniors.

So how do you keep your thought patterns in check?

There is no doubt a number of different methods out there that work for different people, but one I have found particularly helpful is the below process:

  1. Single out one thought pattern
  2. Articulate why this thought pattern makes you feel intimidated
  3. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen
  4. Ask yourself how you would handle the situation if the worst was to happen
  5. Ask yourself what you have to offer that counteracts the original pattern.

(I’ve made this in a handy infographic at the end of this post!)

So, by way of example, let’s say I have to contribute my opinion to a meeting that consists mostly of Seniors:

  1. My thought pattern is that I have nothing to offer that the Seniors don’t already know
  2. I feel intimidated as I will make a fool of myself if I offer my opinion that’s either invalid or is common knowledge amongst the group of Seniors
  3. The worst case scenario would be the group ridiculing me for not contributing anything of value and making me, and the group, feel really awkward. I’d feel really stupid
  4. If this was to happen, thinking about it, I would aim to remind them that I was under the impression the meeting was a space for offering opinions and hearing from different points of views, and what may seem obvious to them and not to me might actually highlight a certain significance eg colleagues less senior than the Seniors are not privy to the information they are when they ought to be.
  5. I have my opinion to offer, which is neither wrong nor invalid. I have been invited to the meeting for a reason and if I had nothing to offer, I wouldn’t have been invited. After receiving the invite, it would help me to have a quick chat with the organiser to understand their expectations in terms of my involvement and contribution. That way I know why I’m there and I can do some homework on the matter if needs be. Having the opportunity to offer my opinion at a lower position in terms of seniority ensures whatever is being tackled in the meeting is done so with a hierarchal-diverse group.

Steps 1 to 3 are acknowledging the subconscious thinking you didn’t know about. Steps 4 and 5 are where you need to turn the pattern around and establish some non-emotional logic to get a truer view of the situation.

Safety nets

It’s important to remember step 4 in particular, as this provides you your safety net. I’m all for safety nets. They’re a handy mechanism, a banked reaction that has already been thought through, at a time where you were cool and collected, so that should the worst happens you have a quick response at the ready to use. This saves you from having to think of a quick and collected reaction on the spot when all eyes are on you. Step 4 is very unlikely to happen, but knowing you can handle the worst case scenario off-the-cuff with a good response will ease the fear.

Step 5 is the most crucial step. Having gone through your pattern and why it’s happened, the final step turns the pattern on its head by replacing it with positivity and logic, and helps you see it from a pragmatic point of view. This means your energy is spent on how you can make a positive impact in the situation, rather than on how you might mess up or feel awkward.

And by noticing the positive impact, you become more aware of how to up your game, like doing more homework into the nature of the meeting in the above example, rather than crumble under the self-imposed pressure.

Another thing to consider is the possibility that you want to impress the Seniors because you admire them professionally. Do you fear failing in front of them, or not delivering the goods, because you see them as a role model? Although this is a positive thing (I will talk more about the concept of work role models and ‘career crushes’ in another post), the pattern itself is making this into a negative experience. Instead you could try to connect this to step 5 and turn it into a positive experience by thinking what they would do in your situation, or what you would need to do to meet or exceed their expectations of you.

The senior profile

As I mentioned, at the end of the day, the colleagues that intimidate you – and that’s how they should be seen, your colleagues – are people; people you work with and therefore must share professional respect. The Seniors would have been in the same position as you and the ones who are down to earth will be aware of that.

For those who aren’t as down to earth as the others, they are no different to any other colleague you work with that might be a little more difficult to handle. I have found in the past that these particular Seniors exert their seniority to get what they want out of you. While you can’t change who they are or how they act, you can learn how to cope with their behaviour towards you in an attempt to work on a better professional relationship. Of course if it gets to a point of bullying, you need to raise this using your employer’s appropriate procedures.

Coping with difficult Seniors

So if these people exert their power to get what they want out of you, you first need to figure out if this is a reasonable request. If it isn’t, again follow your employer’s appropriate procedures. If is reasonable and forms part of your role, as an avid doer, you should turn your thought pattern to see this as an opportunity to improve yourself in giving them what they want in the best way you can.

This involves: probing them for a clear steer of the nature and extent of the information they need from you; how they want this information delivered to them; when do they need it by; if there is an unreasonable deadline, explain to them why a reschedule is more appropriate; explain to them how you will manage their expectations; is this an ad hoc request or will they be requiring it on a regular basis?

By improving your efficiency, you improve the professional relationship, improve your reliability and in time they should not have to be so difficult to work with. You have then turned the experience into one that develops you, rather than intimidates and drains you.

Reality check

This might sound really easy in theory, and you might already be doubting the likeliness of this happening in practice. I know it can be hard in these situations but they are always going to be a part of working life. It’s therefore essential you give it a go and start to hear what specifically you are reacting to, how you choose to handle it, and how to make it into a positive development opportunity. Like anything outside of your comfort zone, practising really does make things easier. You will become more resilient and strong in handling these situations. Give it a try; ultimately the alternative is letting negative patterns affect your working life.

 

thought patterns

Presentations for introverts: Part 2

In my previous post, I shared 5 tips on what anyone, and particularly introverts, can do before a presentation to put in place some safety nets. We discussed the importance of getting clarity on the point of the presentation, fact-checking, getting your intro right to start things off on the right foot, rehearsing, and the ‘prepare, pause, repeat’ method. In this post I share a further 5 tips on what you can do to keep your cool during the presentation.

  1. When you mess up

Allow yourself to mess up. Unless you are a political or power figure who needs to deliver a flawless speech, you are a person telling people about something at work that they need to know about. Simple as that. So if you mess up your words, just stop, excuse yourself, dust yourself off and try again. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Would you feel embarrassed if you did that in a one-to-one conversation? Like I said, this is work, with people, who just need information given to them, not a flawless production. Lost your train of thought? Then say that. Don’t pretend you haven’t and bluff your way through it, it will look really obvious. Admit it and make a joke out of it – prepare one if needs be – ‘sorry, I’m that excited about this glamorous subject, my mind’s raced ahead to the next slide! Where was I?’.

If you are stumbling your words or rushing, make yourself aware that you could be afraid of silence. Some people feel they need to fill silent gaps as quickly as possible, making them panic and stumble. Taking time to punctuate your presentation with a suitably timed pause actually looks and sounds better than rushing from one topic or sentence to the next. The silences can be a conscious decision, or a natural pause of concentration. The 2 or 3 seconds of silence (even though it might seem longer to you!) is enough time to compose yourself and gather your thoughts for the next sentence.

  1. Offer experienced people to share their view

I understand the intimidating feeling of presenting to people who are more experienced than you. If they have been given the objective of the presentation and they still felt the need to attend the presentation, then that’s one victory already achieved – they want to hear what you have to say. If you know in advance who these people are, do a bit of a background check into their experience (don’t be creepy about it) and find out what they do. That way if they really do know more about the subject, find a way of letting them offer their thoughts into the presentation. Ask them what their views are or relate a certain point to them.

‘…and this is why the figures look to be so low in the next quarter. Susan, I believe you worked with Finance a lot on this, would you care to share what your thoughts are on this? Is there anything you would like to add that I might not have covered?’

You have given Susan less imaginary power to challenge or embarrassing you by controlling the situation. You’ve practically told her ‘I acknowledge you know a lot about this, I’m not trying to say I know more. Please can we use your knowledge and share your experience with the group’.

Of course, Susan doesn’t actually want to challenge or embarrass you, she’s actually quite lovely.

  1. Visual aids

Now, as I mentioned, I will be writing about putting together a presentation at a later date, but the reason I have included visual aids to help you overcome your nerves is because they’re a great place for eyes to rest. In other words, everyone is looking at something other than you! Be it a PowerPoint slide, a physical handout or infographic, give the group somewhere they can rest their eyes on, taking the focus away from you.

Some, if not most, introverts feel uncomfortable with attention on them, so having a bunch of eyes ‘judging’ you while you’re going through your already nerve-racking presentation adds to our worries! Give them something else to look at.

  1. Check in regularly

Make sure you check that everyone is happy with the presentation at regular points, or in corporate lingo, ‘checking the temperature’. Not to a point where it’s annoying, but maybe after each big topic or every 20 minutes or so. Sometimes your nerves can build up throughout the presentation if you are the only one talking. If no one is saying anything and you just see a sea of faces looking blankly at your presentation, firstly remind yourself this could be just their resting faces as they’re digesting the information; it might not have anything to do with you boring them.

Secondly, by checking in on them, you can gauge how they’re feeling about it. If asking them has snapped them out of a trance and they all confirm they’re happy with the pace, information etc. then you can carry on with a bit more confidence. If they’re struggling to keep up or digest the information, then checking in on them early means not only can the presentation be readjusted or re-explained in another way for the audience to really get the most out of the presentation, but it’s also good to find this out now rather than get through to the end and no one not knowing what the hell’s just happened. This causes embarrassment and will hit your confidence unnecessarily.

  1. Open the presentation to the floor a lot

Not only does this keep your audience engaged or give you 5 minutes to recompose yourself, you get to know a bit more about the people you’re talking to when you make them part of the presentation. Sometimes it could be not knowing someone, or being intimidated by them because you’re not familiar with how they act with colleagues that puts you off presenting to people. By asking for input and open discussion throughout the presentation, you get an understanding of their character and you’re more than likely going to realise they’re not as scary as you imagined.

Make sure to not stick with the same person or selected few; try and get everyone involved so that you get the maximum group contribution. Edging quiet people to share their views also helps if there is someone dominating the discussions.

Giving presentations is scary to begin with. But admitting that alone will really help you, and bring yourself to terms that this is the way it is, and not necessarily a sign of danger or something that you shouldn’t be doing. Remind yourself this is a professional environment and no one will boo you off stage or think any less of you if you trip over your words. Remember to breath, take your time, and in time, you’ll become better and better.

 

Presentations for introverts: Part 1

“I have to give a presentation to a group of around 20 people but I’m really scared of public speaking. What’s more, there are a couple of people in the group more experienced than me who probably know a lot more about the stuff I’m going to talk about anyway. As an introvert, I haven’t got a lot of confidence with having all eyes on me and I’m just dreading making a mess of it. I know I need to develop this skill to grow professionally, so any advice would be much appreciated!”

I hear that. As an introvert myself  I can’t tell you that the nerves will go away anytime soon. Believe me when I say though that it does get easier with practice though, as with probably every other challenging task in existence. So it’s great that you acknowledge this is something you need to do. To get ahead in your career, it’s an important thing to learn, whether you’re comfortable with it or not, and approaching it head on rips off the proverbial plaster. I’m much more confident with them now and once the momentum picks up, it’s really (nerdily) enjoyable!

My approach is having a number of safety nets in place before and throughout the presentation in 10 simple steps. The first 5 talk about what you can do before the presentation. I will then talk about the other 5 in the next post, where I explain what you can do during the presentation. These are tips on delivering a presentation – I will write another post later about how to put one together.

  1. What’s the point…

…of the presentation? To avoid wasted effort and time, clarify what the presentation needs to be about. To use a corporate word for it, what is its ‘objective’? What does the audience need to take away from the presentation? Who are the audience? And if this has been commissioned by someone else like your line manager, confirm the point with them so that you’re both on the same page before work starts. This saves you embarrassment if you’re pulled up in mid-presentation that you’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

  1. Fact check

Always routinely fact check your presentation. Even if you are pretty sure a certain fact is correct, double check this from a reliable source. Odds are the one fact you didn’t check will be brought up by someone who will challenge you. Scary right? Check your facts.

  1. Get your intro right

While conquering my fear of public speaking, I find that the best way to start a presentation is a really good and well-rehearsed introduction. Starting off on a trip or stumble (verbally of course, although physically is just as humiliating) will really knock your confidence and you run the risk of this setting the tone for the rest of the presentation. Only a risk though, not a guarantee.

Knowing exactly what you’re going to say at the beginning and how you’re going to say it will really get you on the right foot and build confidence-momentum. This will involve writing down the tiny detail, even an ice breaker, of what you’re going to say to hush people to attention. Practise what you’re going to say, you need this in your ammo. For example:

Right everyone? Excuse me, everyone? [you need to choose specific wording otherwise you won’t feel comfortable using a hushing expression on the spot without knowing what the words sound like in the air]. I think it’s time we all crack on with this if we’re going to make the best of our time so if we could just settle, we can begin.

‘Right, thank you everyone. My name is Bob, and today I will be talking about X so that by the end of the presentation, we will get a really clear understanding of what we need to do next, while also opening the floor for any comments’.

  1. Rehearse

Go through the presentation a number of times and make sure the flow is right. You don’t want to write an entire script down that you read off, which sounds like a safe option, but it’s really awkward hearing it. And once you start and you realise people know what you’re doing, it’s incredibly hard (and more awkward) to break out of it mid-presentation.

  1. Prepare, pause, repeat.

Preparing for a presentation might sound like an obvious step, and rightly so as without preparing for the presentation, you feel less in control, and that’s where the fear kicks in. What you need to be cautious about though is preparing too much. That might sound a little odd, but you can actually prepare so much that you play out the same presentation over and over again so rigidly but in your head. Come the day you present, it’s more likely not going to turn out the way you planned, and frankly, you can never be 100% sure how it will go. Preparing too much gives you a false sense of security.

Instead, give my ‘prepare, pause, repeat’ method a go. What I do it prepare a lot for a presentation then ‘pause’, or just put it away out of my mind and not think about it for a day or two. Then I prepare again, be it a rehearsal or quick fact-check, and then I put it away out of my mind again. This stops you preparing so much that you overwhelm yourself with such a rigid perception of how it will go while also giving you the opportunity to not be so heavily involved that you can’t spot grammatical errors or inaccuracies.

So these are 5 things you can do to put some safety nets in place before the presentation. In my next post I will share 5 further tips in what you can do during the presentation.