You know how Simone Biles can do multiple flips and twists in the air, land on her feet and make it look like it’s no big deal? That’s how I feel watching some people work a room at a networking event. (I’m looking at you, Marcus Kimbrough.)

Meanwhile, I feel frozen on the beam, unsure how to take my first step.

I didn’t grow up a shy kid, or even know what an introvert was until I was a young adult. But somewhere along the way, the thought of entering a room and sharing about myself with STRANGERS became the stuff of nightmares.

I no longer want it to feel that way. And if you can relate – I don’t want it for you, either.

Networking angst was a non-issue at my previous job at a church in Lake Norman, where I worked within a bit of a bubble. However, being a “Next Stager” brings opportunities to be more active and engaged with a full spectrum of folks who care about social good in Charlotte – people I DO want to get to know better. I’m learning my way – though clumsy at times – through various gatherings and pre-event social hours and now I want to pass these learnings on to:

  • My fellow introverts
  • Those new to networking environments
  • Networking pros and extroverts who want to help create a welcoming space. (See the Pro Tips.)

The Learnings

Get a Job

Is there an opportunity to volunteer for a role at the event? Maybe the registration table or running slides or helping distribute materials? Having a small, tangible way to belong and contribute has helped calm my nerves. Of course, this doesn’t mean completely opting out of networking, but a small task can be a great way to break up the time and it provides a natural way to interact with other attendees.

Pro Tip: If you need a hand at an event you are hosting, share that with the attendees. The help you need can actually help someone else feel better about showing up.

Choose Wisely

Don’t attend events just for the sake of networking, because you received an invitation or because you think you “should be there.” Though networking takes practice, you need to practice in a space that makes sense. Attending events that align with your industry, interests or passions increases the likelihood of connecting in a conversation that flows with ease and helps you build relationships that matter.

Along these lines, if you’re new to networking, it’s wise to choose smaller events. The idea of entering a ballroom at the Westin feels overwhelming, but walking into a coffee meet-up at Community Matters feels doable. In Next Stage’s weekly newsletter – The Intersection – we always share a curated list of social good happenings for the Charlotte area and many are on the smaller side. Make sure you’re subscribed.

Pro Tip: Be mindful about standing in a “U” and not an “O” as you’re chatting it up. This creates an opening for someone new to join your conversation.

Say Less

One of the main reasons I feel nervous about networking is that I’m not comfortable talking about myself. Turns out, this can be a social interaction superpower.

While I do think we should all practice a brief introduction of ourselves – who we are, how we’re connected to the event, and the work we do or are looking to do – there’s no need to think about this as a personal pitch deck or a job interview. Like you, your fellow attendees are looking to meet a person – not a title or a job description.

In fact, the goal here should be to say less and listen more. Ask open-ended questions which provide a better chance of building a meaningful connection with someone and steer away from superficial small talk – which can exhaust introverts more.

Pro Tip: Introduce conversation topics or icebreakers that are inclusive and help everyone feel more at ease. Don’t assume everyone knows your industry’s insider language of acronyms.

Give Yourself a Break – Physically and Mentally

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to step outside for a VIPretend phone call? I certainly have.

Social interaction drains some of us and there’s no shame in stepping away for a few moments to exhale and re-group. You may even want to make a plan to take that break after a couple of conversations or certain amount of time.

As for giving yourself a break mentally, it’s helpful when I remember that even when I feel awkward in a social setting it’s usually not obvious on the outside. And beyond that, it’s not like all eyes are on me. While we’re (over)analyzing all of our steps, others are not. So shake it off.

Pro Tip: If you’re picking up that someone is new to networking or to the group, share what helped you when you were in their shoes. Or maybe even how you felt. This small act of vulnerability can go a long way in helping someone feel like they are not alone in their feelings.

Buddy System

If possible, attend gatherings with a friend or colleague. This doesn’t mean you stick by each other’s side through the whole event, but it can mean having a “home base” to check in with if you need a break…or a laugh. Plus, as you and your networking buddy meet new people, you collectively expand your connections.

Can’t bring a buddy? Make one near the refreshments and snacks. Standing next to someone in a line feels a lot less awkward than walking up to them in a room. So take advantage of the spacing and strike up a conversation while you’re picking up a drink or grabbing a snack.

Pro Tip: If you see someone spending a lot of time solo at an event, be generous in spirit and introduce yourself. And then – help them also meet someone new!

We All Want to Belong

Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, connections matter – not just for growing your professional network, but for feeling a sense of belonging. So, while the idea of networking may feel overwhelming, it can be worth your efforts. But remember – networking can look differently for each of us and you can choose the environments and rhythms that serve you best.