The holiday season brings a lot of opportunities to network outside the office, but if you're an introvert, parties can be anything but fun. It's estimated that 30 to 50 percent of us are introverted, and for me, walking into a noisy restaurant crowded with people I don't know is infinitely more terrifying than making a big presentation.
These tips are designed for folks like me who force themselves to go to business social events, but could be helpful for anyone.
1. Give yourself an assignment.
Despite being a very shy kid, I was able to become a television reporter by pretending I was someone else--an assertive journalist. So now, whenever I go to a professional party, I pretend I'm on assignment. I come up with two or three business questions or problems to research. For example, I might ask people at my International Association of Business Communicators holiday party what intranet platform their company uses and if they're planning an upgrade. For me, it's more comfortable than trying to come up with small talk.
The conversation will almost always spin off into something else, but at least I know how to start it off. This also gives me a good excuse to follow up with an email to that person. I can ask a follow-up question or send a helpful link to the topic we discussed.
2. Tell yourself you're going to stay for just twenty minutes or until you have a meaningful conversation with two people.
If you're having a good time when you hit your deadline, by all means stay longer. But the hardest part is just walking into that room.
3. Don't attach yourself to the only person you know.
I have never been able to figure out why people who work together will spend an entire event in deep conversation like two BFFs at a pajama party. It's okay to catch up with friend, but after a few moments, ask your friend if she can introduce you to someone new.
4. Strike up a conversation while getting a drink or food.
For me, the worst part of a party is eyeing groups of strangers and trying to figure out which ones would be willing to let me into their conversation. Instead, head for the food table or bar and chat with the person next to you. Afterwards, suggest you move over to a quiet area to continue your conversation. You can even suggest that you sit down together while you eat. Having an in-depth conversation with one person is better than three or four meaningless exchanges.
5. Join a group through body language and listening.
If the food tactic doesn't work or you can't find a person standing off by themselves, you'll have to join a group. Try picking a small cluster of people where there is a gap that you can work yourself into. Nod at the people standing to either side and then look at the speaker. You might feel out of place, but as long as you're sending off the right signals as an engaged listener, the group will accept you. When the speaker finishes her thought, comment on it and then quickly introduce yourself.
6. Welcome others looking to join a group.
If you are lucky enough to be part of a group, don't ignore the poor person who wants to break in. While focusing on the speaker, maintain your peripheral vision, and give a friendly nod to the person who is attempting the previous tactic. The outsider will be grateful and you may even way to move away from the group for a private conversation.
7. Focus on being helpful.
One of the best networkers I know is Lorraine McConnell, a New York-based communications consultant. She suggests asking about the person's holiday plans and really listening.
"Find out about their family, gift-giving, and how they're celebrating," she says. "Then, think about what you can offer, perhaps some ideas for gifts for one of the family members or a restaurant suggestion. Exchange cards and follow up with the tip that you referenced. This is the time to build a relationship, not sell your product or services. That comes later."
In summary, don't focus on your fears - focus on the people at the gathering. Almost everyone has some social anxiety, but the more you practice these techniques, the easier networking at parties will become. When you hit it off with someone, take a moment to congratulate yourself and enjoy the feeling. Then the next time you try to talk yourself out of going to a party, try to call up that feeling of success instead of your typical anxiety.