From Geek to Guru: 14 Networking Tips for Shy People

In my early 20’s, I was your typical geek.  I was a recent engineering grad.  I worked with engineers.  I was married to an engineer.  All my friends were engineers.  By education, experience and relationships, I was doomed to networking hell—I was surrounded by people not known for making small talk.  But, I have overcome my geek beginnings, and while I wouldn’t really call myself a networking guru, I do have a few tips to offer for shy people and even for the not-so-shy when it comes to navigating networking events.

1. Maximize “impersonal” networking methods.  Email the organizers prior to the event to ask some sort of relevant question, such as directions or expected dress.  Then, when you get there, you have an excuse to start a conversation with the person who helped you, if they are there.  You can also ask event organizers to introduce you to people.  Use email and networking sites to connect with people before and after you meet them.

2. Google people/businesses you expect might be there.  Then, if you meet them (or ask someone to make an introduction), you can impress them with your tidbits of knowledge about them (be careful not to sound like you are creating a dossier on them—it is probably best to pick something that you saw about their business, not about their recent divorce).

3. Prepare some topics and questions in advance.  Brush up on current events.  Consider topics of interest related to the event.  Talk about what you are passionate about and listen for other people’s passions. Comments and questions related to the event or to a common experience (like the weather or the traffic) are good icebreakers.  Try to ask open-ended questions such as “What do you think of ________?” or make common-ground comments such as, “Man, that traffic was terrible!”

4. Bring a friend, your personal PR agent.  By bringing a friend you don’t have to feel so alone.  You can network as a duo and discreetly sing each other’s praises.  You can split up and meet people individually and then come back together and introduce each other to new acquaintances.

5. Adjust your attitude.  All friends were once strangers.  Consider strangers as friends you haven’t met yet.  You really have little to lose and much to gain.  Most people are worried about being rejected, so they aren’t passing judgment on you.  People at a networking event want to connect with others.  That’s why they are there!

6. Arrive a little early to scope out the attendee list or nametag table.  You may be able to glean information on companies, positions, names, what you might have in common, etc.  You can also offer to help the event organizer make any final preparation.  Offering to help is a very positive conversation icebreaker!  Find out where the food, drink and restrooms are so you can point them out to people.  If you are feeling really brave, you might even stand near the entrance and welcome people.   “Hi, I’m ___________.  Welcome to _______________.”  Later, if you want to chat with the people you welcomed, they won’t seem so much like strangers.  Another advantage of arriving early or near the beginning of the starting time is that people will not have already formed conversation groups.

7. Chose your environment carefully and limit your time, if you feel you would be overwhelmed (if arriving early scares the bejeebers out of you).  You may want to start out with a very structured networking environment, such as BNI  an organization with chapters world wide that meet weekly.   I am indebted to BNI for the networking experience and education I received during my membership.  You can also arrive at an event when the networking portion of the event is already underway.  During future networking opportunities, you can increase your conversation tolerance in small steps.

8. Pick your position.  The best places to network are near high traffic areas—the entrance, the food, or the bar.  It’s easier to strike up a short conversation in those places.  If you want a longer conversation, you probably need to move away from the high traffic areas.

9. Select your Target groups:  individuals or groups of 3 are best.  That quiet loner may be very appreciative of your simple, “Hello!  I’m _________.”   But, don’t snag someone walking out of the room holding a cell phone, or heading for the restroom.  Two people in deep conversation may not welcome a third person, especially if they are facing each other in a closed position.  If there are more than 3 people already in a group, it’s hard to have a conversation that includes everyone.  When approaching a group, stand off to the side, a little more than an arm’s length away and appear interested in the conversation.  Make eye contact with a friendly face in the group. Hopefully, someone will invite you to join the group within a couple of minutes.  If not, move on.

10. Keep first contact simple:  1. Eye Contact, 2. Smile, 3. Extend hand for hand shake, 4. Hi, I’m (first name, last name).  Don’t wait for others to greet you.  Be the first to say “hello.”

11. Take your time on the introductions and pay attention to the names.   No other sound is as sweet as a person’s own name.  Tips on remembering names.

12. Have a Bumper-Sticker version of your Elevator Speech and DON’T lead with it. 

Nobody wants to feel like they are being pitched right when they meet someone.  Try not to start the conversation telling about your business.  Wait until you are asked or it comes up in conversation.  And then, have a “bumper-sticker” version of about 10 words or fewer that leaves the listener wanting more.  If someone asks me what I do, my “bumper sticker” might be “I help people chit-chat their way to success.”  An elevator speech (a 30 second commercial for your business) is too long for informal networking conversation.

13. Be a good listener–you don’t have to say much!  The real secret to being a good conversationalist and an effective networker is to spend more time listening than talking, which is very good news for shy people!  Use the “Nose-y” method to come across well, without having to say much.  N is for Nodding.  O is for open body language.  S is for Smile.  E is for Eye contact.  The NOSE-y method.  Listen for how you can help them, not how they can help you.

14. Exit gracefully.  You probably only want to spend 5-10 minutes per conversation at a networking event so as to allow yourself and others to meet a maximum number of people.  The point of a networking event is NOT to get business.  The point is to meet people and determine if you want to meet later for a longer one-on-one conversation that may lead to business or referrals.  There are several ways to exit.   You should exit after you have been speaking, not right after someone else has spoken or told a story (or they may feel they have said something wrong). End each exit with a hand shake and moving far enough away so it doesn’t look like you just wanted out.

Example 1:   Don’t want to monopolize your time.  “(person’s name), it’s been great talking with you, but I don’t want to monopolize your time.  Do you have a card?”  Get a card, if they have one.  Give them yours only if they ask for it.    If you really would like to talk with them more later, you can ask them if you can contact them to arrange to have coffee.

Example 2:  Please excuse me.  (person’s name), it’s been great talking with you (or learning about your business).  I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening—please excuse me, I have to talk to so-and-so before they leave,” or, “I need to get a drink/something to eat/to use the restroom.”

Example 3:  Introduce someone else.  (person’s name), it’s been great talking with you.  I’d like to introduce you to. . .(your friend or someone else). . .I’ll leave you two to talk.

I hope you find these tips helpful–I’d love comments with additional tips!


About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

4 Responses to From Geek to Guru: 14 Networking Tips for Shy People

  1. Great job, Diane! These are awesome tips that we should all know.

    I do a weekly networking, a monthly extreme networking and as many events as I can and will review this often, especially before events.

    Thank you once again, for more of your great Wisdom!
    Cindy Mihalko
    Easy Solution Greeting Cards

  2. Gregg Peppin says:

    Thanks Diane. Some real solid ideas here. I especially appreciate your suggestions on breaking away from a conversation and moving to meet a new person. That’s always been an awkward thing for me. These ideas really help!

  3. Pingback: Talking to People About Your Business: Business cards, Breaking into Conversations and Permission-based Marketing « Small Talk, Big Results

  4. Pingback: How to Start a Conversation with Someone You Don’t Know at a Networking Event « Small Talk, Big Results

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