Very few people believe me when I tell them I’m shy. Why? Because I’m a frequent public speaker, a regular networker, and I love to meet and brainstorm with other small business owners. When I started my own business in 2008, I knew I’d have to become a salesperson (in addition to being an editor) in order for my business to thrive, so I swallowed my fears and stepped up my networking game. Here’s my advice for other business owners who are shy or introverted:
Bring a friend. Conventional wisdom says not to attend networking events with friends, because you’ll end up hanging out together all night and not meeting anyone new. However, if you are an introvert, the thought of walking into a roomful of strangers alone can keep you from going at all. There are two ways to use the buddy system, and both work well:
Take a friend who’s shy too, but make a pact to split up when you get to the event. Reconnect from time to time during the event when you need a confidence boost, but don’t sit together.
Take a friend who’s confident and has a business complementary to yours. Stick together, and as you both meet new people, they can help you feel at ease by integrating you into the conversation. (Just don’t let them do all the talking for you.)
Parlay online connections into offline ones. It’s often easier for shy people to connect and build relationships in the virtual world than in the real one. Use your strengths to build connections on social networking sites. Then take the next step by suggesting you and your contacts meet up in person for coffee, or asking if they’re attending an upcoming networking event. You’ll feel more confident going to an event if you already “know” some of the other attendees from social media.
Go one-on-one. Shy people are often much better in one-on-one situations than large groups. So when you enter a networking event, don’t try to break into a huge group having an animated conversation. Look for one person and approach them to start a conversation. They’ll probably be glad you made the first move.
Start small. Shy people often struggle to make small talk, thinking that it’s mindless or pointless. However, small talk is how people start conversations with strangers, so it’s an essential skill to master. Common conversational openers include asking someone if this is their first time at this event; how they heard about the group; bringing up non-controversial current events like unusual weather or the women’s World Cup; or commenting on something around you, like the refreshments, décor or something the person is wearing.
Be a good listener. Instead of worrying about what you’ll say at a networking event, try focusing on what everyone else says. Most people love to talk about themselves, so if you keep asking questions, they’ll keep talking. Instead of planning what you’ll say next, however, really listen to the answers. By truly listening, you’ll learn what needs and problems this person has and get ideas for how your business could work with theirs. Bonus: Listening is so rare that people who do it are generally perceived as being great conversationalists (the irony!), so you’ll make lots of friends.
Just do it. This is probably my number-one tip. Overthinking anything can lead to paralysis as you come up with excuses for not taking action. When you hear yourself starting to make excuses or stalling, just shut those voices off, grab your business cards and head out the door. Like a kid diving into the deep end of the pool, chances are you’ll enjoy yourself once you’re actually in the water.
Rieva Lesonsky is a small-business contributor for Fundbox and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. She has spent 30+ years covering, consulting and speaking to small businesses owners and entrepreneurs.