How to network: 17 tips for shy people

Shy? Networking probably feels like a brutal trial by fire. These 17 strategies will help you do it well -- and keep your sanity.

1 intro
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Shy? Here’s 17 ways to network anyway

Networking is the key to business success. It helps you find jobs, recruit talent, and find customers and investors.

But networking is a trial for shy people -- geeks especially -- for whom it feels insincere or manipulative. They avoid it, afraid it will lead to rejection. But that undermines their careers and projects.

“Networking isn’t smarmy,” says Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone a best-seller on networking for professional success. It’s a buzzword for building sincere relationships based on mutual generosity. Good networks are built on good relationships, and you can’t build your career or business without those. You need people to help you.

Fortunately, networking is a set of social skills any smart person can learn. Here are 17 networking skills to try right now.

2 start with what you know
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Start with what you know

If you are shy, approaching strangers can be scary. So start slow by networking with relatives and friends.

"You can do a significant amount of valuable networking without ever making a cold call," says Lynne Sarikas, director of Northeastern University's MBA Career Center. "Start with a known instead of an unknown to demystify the process. This helps a shy person over the hurdle." After a few successful conversations, you’ll feel more confident.

Once you acquire a smidge of courage, expand to people who graduated from your alma mater. Your alumni network is a gold mine of connections. That’s why it exists. Contacting an alum out of the blue shouldn't feel like a cold call. After all, they joined this network to make -- and take -- calls just like this.

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Don’t apologize

Introverts and inexperienced networkers tend to apologize when asking for help because they believe networking is an imposition rather than an exercise in relationship building.

"They feel like they're asking for a favor,” says Sarikas. “They don't think they're worth someone else's time so they apologize for asking for it."

Apologizing makes you look like a novice. Stop it. It showcases a lack of professionalism and confidence. You don't have to apologize for asking for help. You don't have to apologize for wanting to learn more about the person you are talking to. The expectation with networking is that one day you will be in a position to return the favor you are asking for now. Believe in yourself.

4 put on a happy face
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Put on a happy face

Smile! "This is such a simple, basic rule, yet people just don't think about it," says Peter Handal, the chairman, CEO, and president of Dale Carnegie & Associates. (Dale Carnegie literally wrote the book on networking in 1936 with How to Win Friends and Influence People.) Don’t get so focused on how much you hate networking that you walk around a conference or party with a grimace on your face. Scowling -- any serious facial expression -- is forbidding. People are much more likely to warm to a person who says good morning with a broad smile than to a grump who frowns a hello. You don’t have to walk around looking like a manic clown -- just lighten up your expression and smile when you say hello.

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Time your entry

Walking up to a group already engaged in a lively conversation and joining in can be intimidating. Even if you are drawn to the discussion, joining it requires some art. Don’t push your way in and blurt out an opinion. That can make a bad first impression and kill the flow of conversation. The best way to ease your way in without causing waves is to smile and listen for a few moments to get the gist of the conversation.

“Then, when there is an opening, pose a question to the group,” says Handal. "You build your credibility by asking a question.” Bonus: For a shy person, asking a question may be much easier than launching into a speech or sharing an opinion.

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Listen to be heard

One of the most profound points Carnegie made in How to Win Friends was that everyone loves to talk about themselves. For a shy person, more than for an extrovert, this is networking gold. Many people don’t listen when others talk: They might be quiet, but they are just waiting for a chance to talk again. If you are shy, listening is easier than talking. So become a good listener. Don’t ignore the conversation. Don’t wait in dread for the moment when you will have to talk. Listen. If you let people discuss their experiences and opinions -- and listen with sincere interest -- they will remember that they had a great conversation with you. And you didn’t have to say much at all.

7 bring all your cards
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Bring all your cards

“Always have business cards handy,” says Handal. "They're an effective way for you to leave your name behind so people remember who you are." This is especially true if you are shy. If networking doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t squander any of the contacts you make. If you came out of your shell and made a successful connection, however brief, don’t let it go to waste. You need to take advantage of every opportunity. Don’t wait for your new friend to ask for your card. They might not think of it. Just offer one and let them know it’s okay to reach out. Very likely, they will offer their card in return. And now you have made a solid, repeatable connection.

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Say their name

"People like to hear their own name," says Handal, pointing to another one of Carnegie's basic principles: that a person's name is a sweet sound to him or her. So, when you meet new people, use their name immediately in conversation. It will make them feel more comfortable. It shows you are paying attention, and it makes the group seem like a group of friends rather than a faceless mass. If using this strategy feels manipulative, stop and pay attention to how it feels when someone says your name in a similar situation. It isn’t sneaky. It’s kind. It also helps you to remember that person’s name -- at this event and in the future -- so it’s also a smart social skill.

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Be yourself

Many introverted professionals think they have to pretend to be an extrovert for networking situations. That’s not true. Sure, you do have to make more effort than it takes to stay at home and read. But you don’t have to turn into a ham actor.

"You don't have to become the schmoozer," says Never Eat Alone's Ferrazzi. The problem with schmoozers is that they don’t have the right intent: They aren’t interested in helping other people -- only themselves.

If you are shy and smart, run with that. "Be the authentic, aw-shucks, humble, shy person you are. It can be endearing. Don't try to be something you're not," says Ferrazzi.

In other words, it's OK if you're a little awkward. Just don't apologize for it.

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Always be networking

Networking doesn’t only happen at work. Anything that gets you out of the house can be networking. Instead of chatting online, join a club. If you're a gamer, go to a gaming event. Voracious reader? Join a book club.

"Just because you're a technology professional doesn't mean you should only network at technology conferences," says Northeastern University's Sarikas. "The person in front of you at a football game might work at a company you want to get into. You could sit behind them the whole season and never know that if you don’t start a conversation."

The advantage of mixing networking with fun is that the conversation is easy. While you're playing board games, ask the person next to you about her work. Why not?

11 bring your hobbies to work
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Bring your hobbies to work

Your interests can serve you well at work events, too. If you find yourself in a room full of strangers at a technology conference or party, go straight to what interests you. "When you talk about things you're passionate about, you will light up and appear more engaging," Ferrazzi says. "You don't have to find a shared interest. You just have to share your own interests." People already know what they do in their spare time. But often people are looking for new activities or are simply interested in things other than work. If you do something interesting outside of work, bring it up. It will make you easy to remember -- you are the woman who scuba dives, or maybe you are the guy who knits.

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Find a wingman

Peter Handal of Dale Carnegie & Associates notes that shy people attending conferences tend to find one person to spend all their time with for the duration of the event. Sure, this is easier, but don’t do it.

There is an easy way out of this, says Handel. Ask your new buddy if he knows anyone else at the event. Admit you are shy or trying to be better at networking and turn that buddy into a wingman. It will probably make networking easier for both of you. Ask if he will introduce you to people he knows. "That's a nice soft way for people at the shy end of the spectrum to meet others," says Handal.

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Be generous

Sometimes shy people have trouble networking because they don't think they have anything significant, such as a job or contacts, to give back to someone who helped them.

It’s true that networking works best when you have something to offer, says Ferrazzi. But you do have something to offer. Sincere interest in the other person -- even flattery or encouragement -- is a form of generosity. It shows you are able to think about someone other than yourself, and it goes a long way when you're networking.

"Be authentic, share your passions, and help other people feel good about themselves or be successful -- that's all you have to do to network," he says.

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Be prepared

If you are afraid that you'll freeze up or get tongue-tied in a social setting, prepare in advance. Think of ice-breaker questions you can ask people when you meet them so you don’t stand around sweating. If you're attending an event specifically to network your way to a new job, have your elevator pitch ready, says executive talent agent Feldman. Think about the sorts of questions people might ask you, such as why you're looking for a new job. You might even want to leave openings in your elevator pitch for questions so you don’t end up lecturing. Have clear, concise answers at the ready. "Your delivery has to be attention grabbing to overcome interruptions and compensate for a lack of privacy," she says.

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Follow up

Sharing information, whether it’s a website, article, report, or phone number, with new contacts builds your credibility, says Northeastern University's Sarikas. So, if you get into a discussion about something you know something about and promise to e-mail a report or article to the person you just meet on a plane, get their card, and make sure you do it.

"When you do what you've said you were going to do, it gives the other person the impression that you keep your word," she says. If you don't, you're just another schmoozer.

This also builds a future into the relationship. Even if that person doesn’t have a job or lead for you now, they might someday, and now they have a way to reach you when that happens.

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Get rejected

In the course of networking, you are certain to encounter people who can't or don't want to help you. You will encounter rude people. You will meet people too busy to chat. You will find yourself talking to people who don’t like you and people you don’t like. You might disagree on something that’s important to one of you. You might find her overbearing. He might find you nerdy.

“That's life,” says Sarikas. Don't take it personally and don't dwell on it. It doesn’t mean anything about you. Relationships aren’t equal opportunity. You don’t marry everyone you meet; you won’t be friends or business partners with everyone you meet either. Meeting people and not hitting it off is all part of the process.

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Accept risk

When you overcome your fear of rejection, you’ll find it much easier to make cold calls and strike up conversations with strangers.

"The person sitting next to you at a banquet or on an airplane may be feeling as uncomfortable as you are and will appreciate you breaking the ice," says Sarikas. "And they just might be a fabulous contact for you or know the right person for you to talk to." Don’t assume everyone but you has it together. There are a lot of shy people in the world. It is a rare person who never felt awkward in a social setting. Maybe the person next to you is your next best friend. Maybe not, but you will never know until you try.

18 see a shrink
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See a shrink

If you can't open up to people and share something about yourself, you'll never be able to network. If you absolutely cannot overcome your shyness, Ferrazzi recommends seeing a therapist who can help you understand why you're so shy and give you some tools to help you overcome it.

"Your ability to be intimate with others is the core of networking," says Ferrazzi. "Shy people know at their core that they're lonely and long for more intimacy. They just don't have the courage and the confidence to achieve it."