Dear Sam: With the lack of in-person events during the pandemic, I have not been able to practice my networking skills as much as I would have liked. In addition, I am shy by nature, quite reserved, and more comfortable in small groups versus large networking events. Now that in-person events are making a comeback, I feel I need to make myself get out there and build some relationships in my industry and community. I heard you speak once where you told a story about how nervous you were when you first started speaking in front of large groups, and it was only through repeated practice that you became the comfortable public speaker you are today. I’d love to get even just a little more comfortable stepping into a room with lots of people and owning who I am in front of strangers! Any tips? – Jen

Dear Jen: That’s so nice you came to one of my presentations – thank you! And yes, I too am an introvert, could be called shy by some, am reserved by nature, and prefer small versus large groups. The good news, however, is that there is a way to learn to be more successful in these networking and group situations. Many people struggle with feeling awkward and unnatural in these social situations. Instead of pretending to be someone you’re not and trying to approach networking like an extrovert, take time to prepare ahead of time and tap into your strengths as an introvert. Here are some tips to help you navigate these events:

1. Prepare
Before heading into your next networking event, identify your goal: What do you want to learn from others? What do you want others to know about you? Have a few questions ready (you can even write some down), such as “How did you get involved in the ____ field?” or “What would make someone the ideal employee for your company or organization?” Preparing a list of questions can help you avoid the dreaded awkward silence. You can also research people in advance by finding out who’s going to the event – this can give you an idea of who you might want to talk to in person. This is how I approach events: I am a listener first, I ask questions to make the other person talk, and I make them feel comfortable—and therefore, I become more comfortable—by showing a genuine interest in who they are and what they do.

2. Focus on One-on-One Conversations
Networking events that require engaging with large groups are particularly intimidating for introverts. Instead of thinking you have to network with most at an event, set a goal of perhaps making a connection with just a handful of people. Accomplishing a small goal is far better than setting an unrealistic expectation and coming away feeling as if you failed. Instead of focusing on the quantity of conversations you have with others, focus on the quality. Try to have conversations with one person at a time and focus on ensuring these conversations are productive.

3. Be approachable
If you’re not comfortable walking up to strangers, there are ways to make yourself more approachable so that people come up to talk to you. Smile, make eye contact, and maintain open body language (i.e., don’t cross your arms in front of your chest, don’t stare down at your phone, and don’t hide against the wall). By remaining present in the moment and giving off a friendly vibe, it is more likely that people will want to get to know you. I find that approaching someone to start a conversation is the most challenging part of being in these group settings, so by changing your body language often others will approach you, removing some of the barrier to networking.

4. Bring a Friend
Invite a colleague or friend to join you at your next networking event. Having at least one familiar face can help you calm your nerves and give you someone to introduce to others. Try to avoid only speaking to that friend, though — remember the point of the event is to meet new people!

As an introvert, opening up to others and building rapport with new people can be challenging. However, statistics show that over 80% of jobs are secured through networking, so avoiding networking opportunities altogether can be a critical career mistake. Focus on your strengths to help with this process, and remember that the goal is to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.