How to Learn to Love Networking
Many people had told me that delivering a TED talk could change my life. And they were right—but not only in the ways that I’d imagined.
There were the changes I’d hoped for: I got to meet extraordinary people, and I acquired (rather preposterously from the point of view of my younger, stage-frightened self) an international career as a public speaker. There were the changes I couldn’t have imagined: my book became a multi-year bestseller, and Bill Gates knows my name.
But it turns out that one of the most interesting changes that occurred as a result of my TED talk was a small shift. Although it’s small, it enriches my life every day: I no longer have to make small talk.
Once people realize that I’m the one who gave “that introvert talk”—a talk that, if nothing else, was frankly vulnerable—they feel comfortable sharing their own vulnerabilities with me.
I’ve had the most charismatic person at an event confide that he’s secretly shy and wearing a social mask. I’ve met a mom (many moms, actually) who, within minutes of shaking my hand, tearfully recounted the challenges her quiet child has faced. But often, I meet strangers who open up to me in ways that have nothing to do with shyness or introversion at all. I have talked with these brand-new friends about their career aspirations, their marriages and divorces, their fondest relationships, and their wildest dreams.
In conversations like these, I don’t get bored and tired the way I used to at networking events. Why would I? I get to connect with fellow humans across what once would have seemed an impassable chasm of social awkwardness. And I’ve come to realize that the problem with “networking” is not talking to strangers but rather making small talk with strangers—a subtle but crucial difference.
I’ve also learned something important about people. We’re all insecure—even the shiny, well-coiffed types. We’re all vulnerable. And no one likes small talk any more than you do. We introverts tend to think it’s just us, but studies show that small talk is universally dreaded. We all want to connect at a deep level. The only question is, how do you find the magical portal to the deep stuff?
I can’t advise you to give an “introvert talk” at TED, only because it’s already been done. But try these suggestions:
- Collect kindred spirits. Your goal, in life and at networking events, should be to find your people. Forget the whole idea of “networking.” It’s a soulless, mechanistic word that encourages people to think of each other as instrumental cogs in a machine. Instead, look for people whose company you truly enjoy—people you sincerely like and want to keep in touch with. After you’ve met two or three of them, your work is done. Now you can go back to your hotel room and watch a movie in your pajamas.
- Focus on what you’re doing—not what you’re getting, or even giving. You’ve probably heard that networking is about giving, not taking. This is a terrific sentiment, but it’s given rise to a networking culture of people asking each other “how can I help you?” in a thinly disguised attempt to ask “how can you help me?” It’s as if we’ve all been to the same networking seminar. So instead, focus on being sincere. Ask yourself: What are you doing in this world? How does your work relate to your life path? How do the relationships you make at work—and at this very networking event—relate to that path? If you operate from this center, people will feel it. They will naturally want to help you, and you will instinctively look to help them.
- Give the speech. Shy people will be surprised to hear this, but it’s much easier to attend a networking event if you’re the one giving the speech. Once you step off stage, everyone knows you. Even more, they know just how to start a conversation with you!You don’t have to give a grand keynote to make this work. Volunteer to give a short five-minute talk during a low-key breakout session at the next gathering you attend, and watch how it breaks the ice. If you’re deathly afraid of public speaking, as I once was, stay tuned. I plan to publish a post on how to overcome stage fright.
- Prepare a few talking points. Since right this very minute you might be swearing that there’s no way you’re volunteering to give a speech, here’s Plan B. Prepare some topics you might bring up in conversation: your thoughts on a speaker or your past experiences on the city you’re visiting. It doesn’t matter the topic as long as it’s likely to hold common interest with the person you’re speaking to. Once the conversation is off to the races, use your natural introvert talent of asking lots of curious questions and listening intently to the answers. Just take care not to cross the invisible line into Charlie Rose Q&A territory—make sure to offer a few comments of your own.
- Set a quota. Decide in advance how many networking events you will attend per week, per month, per quarter. Select the events carefully—pick the ones that are genuinely interesting to you so you’re excited to be there. The rest of the time you’re allowed to stay home without guilt or FOMO.
- Choose your people. Before the event, find a list of attendees, and pick the ones you want to know and have a decent reason for contacting. Reach out to them in advance, whether via LinkedIn, other social media, or an email introduction from a mutual friend. Not everyone will reply, but that’s okay. Some will! Set up a meeting if you can. Instead of wandering the halls during breaks, looking for someone to talk to, arrange for pre-scheduled one-on-one sessions so you know where to go, with whom, and what to talk about once you get there.
- Pace yourself, and be strategic. When attending long conferences, plan how many and which events to attend. Which topics sincerely interest you? At what time of day are you at your best? Some people are freshest in the morning. Others, like me, are most relaxed in the evening. I can literally feel my cortisol levels melt away as the shadows lengthen. You must know yourself and honor your preferences. At most conferences, there’s pressure to attend all events. Resist this, knowing that you’ll be at your best and have more to give if you allow yourself to recharge, whether by browsing the bookstore, taking a walk, or eating chocolate ice cream at the hotel coffee shop.
I hope you find these tips helpful! How do you feel about networking events? What are some of your favorite tips for chatting with strangers?