Five ways a shy person can master networking events

Recently I attended the annual conference of one of my clients, which is a membership organization. Part of my role was to meet and greet the members, who know me as the editor of the organization’s quarterly journal. So throughout the day at every possibility, I walked up to people and introduced myself. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience; it was good to meet face to face with the dozens of people whose articles I edited or who I’d interviewed over the phone. This is in dramatic contrast to how I would have responded if I’d been asked to do something like this early in my career.

As I’ve written earlier, I grew up in a small farming community – one of those places where everybody knows your name from the day you’re born. As a result I literally never had to introduce myself to a stranger until I was plopped down in a dorm in college. The thought of networking was an anathema to me for the first 20 years of my career. But network we must, if we want to succeed. So here are five  tips I’ve learned over the years that can help you overcome your shyness long enough to make new contacts at networking events.

• Set a goal. Before you walk into a networking event, set a goal for how many business cards you’re going to give out. In essence, you’re deciding how many conversations you have to have with strangers. Do not leave until you’ve met your goal!

Even if you decide your goal is only to hand out three business cards, you may well find that those conversations go so well that you stick around and meet more people. Like many things, getting started is the hard part and for some reason having a goal in mind helps.

• Listen carefully and ask questions. Don’t think that you have to be a sparkling conversationalist to be an effective networker. All you really have to do is pay attention to the other person. Ask simple questions about their work, like how long they’ve been doing what they’re doing and so on. I’ve found that the question of whether someone is a native to these parts is usually a good question; sometimes the stories of how someone ended up living where they’re living can be quite interesting. In general, do more listening than talking.

• Don’t oversell. Some of the worst networkers I know are people who clearly are not shy. They love to talk, but mostly about themselves and what they do. Don’t be guilty of this. At a networking function, your purpose is not to sell someone on your services or products. You’re there just to get to know someone well enough so that you can contact them later to see if they’d like to meet over coffee or lunch to discuss possible mutual interests.

• Look for people who are like you. It can be hard to break into a group of people who are holding a conversation. But look around the room and realize that there are other people there who are probably just as shy as you are; you can find them by noticing who is by themselves. They’ll be happy if you take the initiative to introduce yourself.

• If at first you don’t succeed…. I know from experience that not all networking groups are equal. In fact, there can be vast differences in how various groups make newcomers feel at home and how welcoming the members are in general. If you go to a group and find that people are standoffish or don’t seem particularly interested in meeting new people, try another group.

I joined a chamber of commerce in the early 1990s where women were all but invisible. So when I moved to Western Massachusetts, I wasn’t anxious to join another chamber. But much to my delight, I found the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce was completely different from the chamber I previously belonged to. They went out of their way to greet new people and draw them into the organization. So just because one group doesn’t feel like a fit, don’t give up on networking. Realize that it may not be you that has a problem; it could be the group.


  1. Thanks for this. I found it helpful for those dreaded those networking arenas.

  2. short life says:

    Good article. I would also add to the list – Just give it a try. I know it seems daunting, but as someone who has progressed from avoiding to actively seeking networking opportunities, I often wonder now what on earth I was worried about.

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