"But... I'm Too Shy To Network!"

In 2008, I started attending conferences with Carmen, had a pocketful of business cards that I only distributed a few of, and felt really uncomfortable and nervous in crowds. This year, she asked me for tips on networking. What changed?

First, some background. I'm generally an introvert by nature, and I converted myself into an extrovert sometime in high school. It was not a simple process, and my introvert self manifests in some weird ways. (Example: Most of my friends know that if they haven't heard from me in a few weeks, it just means I'm in need of alone time, not that I'm dead.) So, going up to complete strangers and trying to talk yourself up seemed like a horrifying proposition under the best of circumstances. Doing something like this in a work context was even more mortifying, and I openly envied the skills of my boyfriend and close friends, who seemed to have no problems at all starting up conversations with the people next to them on the bar stool, the bus, or in line at a concert.

But, unfortunately, we can't escape networking. The idea that we have to network, network, network is a staple of career advice, but they never explain exactly how we are supposed to go about this. It's great to say "be where the people are," but then what do you say to them? These career articles never seem to focus on the talking part. So, here are some quick tips on networking, from an fake extrovert who still finds herself nervously fiddling with a drink before she can put on her game face:

  • Focus on Making Friends
    There seems to be this idea that networking means you always work the room, schmoozing and handing out business cards like there is no tomorrow. This does not work for me. The only time I ever feel compelled to work a room is when we host a Racialicious meet up. Other than that, I'm cool. But one of the tactics I've found to take the pressure off of networking is to go to events and try to locate one person that you want to talk to. Instead of rushing around and trying to meet everyone, focus on two to three people you would like to get to know. For example, I was at Feminism 2.0, just listening to the speakers, and heard girl pipe up that she worked in video games. After the session was over, I made a beeline to her seat and introduced myself as a fellow girl gamer.

    The person I made friends with that day was Tina Tyndal, and she ended up introducing me to her world of gaming professionals. And while I have more fun with Tina's crazy personality, it also helps that she is able to point me toward getting more involved with the gaming world.

  • Use Tools
    Some times, networking isn't as much about meeting new people as it is about keeping in touch with those you already know. A while ago, I had designs on working for the Discovery Channel. They had a job that looked tailor-made for me, and I was raring to get into the company. But my resume didn't reflect my digital knowledge, and I really wanted to meet with someone in human resources there who could explain my chances. I went to LinkedIn, and searched for "Discovery Channel" to see if there was anyone close to someone in my network who worked there. Lo and behold, one of my old coworkers currently had a job there. We hadn't spoken in a few years, but it was a lot easier shooting off an email to him than to someone I had never met.
  • Force Yourself to Make Three Openings
    A long time ago, when I was so broke I tried to work as a telemarketer, I learned something from the training that has always stuck with me. The trainers at the company made sure to stress that you always should attempt to get in "three asks." Before someone hangs up the phone, you need to ask them to try the product at least three times before admitting defeat. Unfortunately, I wasn't great at harassing people to purchase magazine subscriptions, so I only lasted a day. However, that three asks idea stuck with me, and I started re-inventing the rule for various scenarios.

    In networking in a new environment, I always try to make three openings. Normally, I'm slightly uncomfortable and sitting back against the wall nursing a drink. But by implementing the three openings rule, I force myself to approach three people, and try to initiate conversations with them using three different topics. (Why three different topics? The first one doesn't always catch, leaving awkward silence.) After that, if I completely strike out, I'm free to hang on the wall with my drink. But what normally happens is that at least one person is receptive to the opening, and then I have a hang buddy. Or, best case scenario, I chat up the right person who will make all the introductions for me. Sweet!

  • Plan Ahead
    Before going to a conference or event, try to get some information. Who else is attending? Is anyone else you know going? Can you bring a friend? Is there anyone speaking that you are going to really want to pitch yourself/your product to? Be prepared - it's a helpful way to combat nervousness.
  • Make the Most of Your Downtime
    "But... I'm Too Shy To Network!"A few years ago, I read Keith Ferrazzi's Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. The book was a worthwhile read, but it was his title idea that made the most impact on me. After one particularly fruitful conference, I was having a hard time trying to remember to contact all the people I met on business cards. Ferrazzi's tip was to schedule lunch meetings, calls, and other types of relationship maintenance when you are otherwise idle. So you grabbing a sandwich turns into an hour long catch-up session at Cosi, and you being stuck waiting for the bus can be turned into time when you are talking to someone you met at an event. Quality relationships do require some nurturing, but if you are smart about your time, it's much less painful.
  • Think of Networking as "Paying It Forward"
    A lot of people - especially women - have problems talking themselves up. It feels like bragging or boasting, and some people just are not comfortable with that. And that's fine. So instead of thinking about networking as a way to promote yourself, think of it in terms of being able to do favors for others. How can you help someone? Can you connect your friend who wants to do more advertising for her business with a friend that does graphic design? Or connect a show producer with someone you know would be an interesting guest? Then there you are.

    I say think of it as "paying it forward" because regarding networking as a series of favors does not lend itself to a tit for tat trade-off. Think of it as banking favors from the universe. If you have a request of someone you've done a favor for, by all means, ask them, but don't have any expectations that they will do so. Instead, focus on connecting people in need - I find that is a great way to keep people thinking of you, and trying to figure out how to repay the favor.

  • Accept Invitations
    Just go. Go out. When someone says let's go somewhere, force yourself to go. A lot of times, our personal networks are limited because we just don't know that many people. So the solution to this? Meet more people. Don't worry if the first few times, you're just showing up. Get your three openers in and keep showing up. Eventually, you'll start to meet people who are moving in the same circles. I dragged my friend Tina to a writer's meet up, where she didn't know anyone and I met quite a few cool people, while reconnecting with some other folks I knew. At that meet up, I banged into Nisha Chittal, who runs Politicoholic and recently moved to the area to continue her total domination of all things tech and politics. Though I didn't know her, I remembered her photo from her site and talked to her for a few.

    The next week, Tina dragged me to a tech meet up where I thought I didn't know anyone. Then, Nisha came in through the door and introduced me to Shireen Mitchell a.k.a Digital Sista. And, as I was walking around in search of a chair, I ran into Kety Esquivel of Cross Left and NCLR, who I had last seen at South by Southwest.

    After a while, you become an accidental regular.

  • If You Admire Someone, Let Them Know
    I was in the middle of working on a paper on race, video games, and digital space when suddenly my blackberry started going off. In the same day, I got five separate emails from friends and readers all asking me the same question: Did I know Celestine Arnold? One friend was even launched a playful jab - "You better get on your grind, LP, someone's about to take your spot!"

    At that point in time, I wasn't aware of any other black women talking about video games in the public sphere. So, I looked her up. She had rocked her speech at PSFK and had been making huge moves in marketing and branding. I felt a quick stab of professional envy and quashed it just as fast. That competitiveness between women and people of color is encouraged, many times in the hopes that we will focus on taking each other out. So I shook it off, googled her a bit, found her email address and shot off an introduction and congratulations. And what do you know? She wrote back, and is every bit as awesome in person as she appears online.

Any tips from your own experiences? Something I forgot to address? Leave them in the comments.

Official Site [New Demographic]
Game On! Working in the Video Game Industry [Tina Tyndal's Blog]
Official Site [LinkedIn]
Never Eat Alone
Official Site [Politicoholic]
Official Site [Shireen Mitchell]
Official Site [Cross Left]
PSFK Conference New York Speaker: Celestine Arnold [PSFK]