I want to address a topic that is almost essential for career progression but can strike fear in an introvert’s heart: networking. Although it may feel like you’re the only one who gets nervous in networking situations, you’re not alone. Everyone fears rejection or embarrassment, but you don’t need to be afraid!
If speaking with your optics idol or asking a question makes you queasy, the following approach can quell your fears. I urge you to try it out.
1. Make your approach
The first step is deciding how to approach someone and begin a conversation with him or her. If you are in a panel session, approach a speaker and say, "I have a question and I would like to hear your thoughts." This shows the panelist that you value his or her opinion.
If you are in an informal networking situation, try approaching a group and simply asking, "May I join you?" Remember, networking is about meeting new people. They want to meet you, too.
When deciding who to approach and how, ask yourself, "What’s the worst thing that could happen?" The very worst possibility is that the panelist or group isn't friendly, in which case you just move on. A better question to ask is, "What’s the BEST thing that could happen?" If you don’t put in the effort, you could miss out on great opportunities.
2. Have a conversation
After introducing yourself to someone and exchanging basic information, start asking him or her questions. I estimate that 90 percent of networking is showing interest in other people, so be sure to focus on the person to whom you’re speaking. Sometimes conversation flows naturally, but other times it might take more effort. Here are some good questions to get a dialog started:
• What are you currently working on?
• What result do you expect to see?
• What has challenged you?
• What has been your biggest success?
• Is there anyone here you hope to meet?
3. Follow up
When it is time to move on, exit the conversation by simply saying, "It was nice to speak with you. May I have your business cards/emails? I need to see a few more people today, but we should get in touch." Make sure to follow up:
• Write down a relevant detail from the conversation as soon as possible. This will help you remember the conversation and reconnect with that person later.
• Within two days, make contact and mention a specific point that you discussed. If you meet a lot of people, prioritize your list and contact the individuals you deem most likely to be helpful first. Contact the others at a later time.
• Make an effort to keep in contact with important people. Don't let them forget about you.
Arlene Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.