There’s a lot of networking advice out there for job seekers who are outgoing, sociable, and confident. Isn’t that counterintuitive? What about the rest of us?
You’re not alone if you feel that the pandemic made you socially awkward in networking situations. News outlets started reporting on the phenomenon back in 2021.
“This stage of the pandemic resembles a middle school dance: We’re eager to be with others but don’t know quite how to act,” the Washington Post’s Lisa Bonos states, adding a quip from psychologist Marisa Franco who says, “It’s like you haven’t practiced a language, then you go back to the country, and it starts to come back.”
Or maybe you’ve always been awkward in networking situations. That’s common, too. Over 60% of people have experienced social anxiety or shyness, and that’s only one aspect of social awkwardness. Neurodivergence, which affects at least 17% of the population, comes into play, too.
So, it’s clear that MOST of us are awkward about networking. What do we do with that information? We asked our colleagues—ranging from those who self-identify as being as awkward as the rest of us to seasoned networking professionals—for their best tips. Some you’ll resonate with, others you won’t. Our hope is that you’ll walk away with a few strategies you’re excited to try.
Networking accounts for 85% of jobs found, so it’s a necessary evil, says Amanda Graham, a writer who describes herself as “an uber-introverted autistic woman who pretty much likes talking about four things — neolithic sensory archaeology, medieval mysticism, cheese, and The Monkees.”
She adds that things get better when you embrace that you’ll need to get comfortable with the un-comfort of networking. “Which, for those of us weirdos, kind of feels like every day already, doesn’t it? We already know that feeling, so we might as well make the most of it,” she explains. But WHY is it necessary, you might be asking yourself? “All of us who’ve been on the sidelines deserve a place in this world. We deserve to reach our goals. To get our dreams, dammit! Why should it just be insiders?” Read her full essay on “What We Weirdos Need to Know About Networking” here.
Own Your Awkward!
“Don’t pretend to be something you’re not but cultivate confidence in who you are. Then bring that confidence with you wherever you go, even in networking situations,” she recommends. How has it worked for her? “I actually truly enjoy networking now; it wasn’t always the case. I love meeting new people and am genuinely interested in what they are doing. I love to HELP people, so if someone voices a need and I have an instant answer or connection that could help, it makes me feel useful, which is a great feeling for me. If you can communicate what you are working on, even if it’s something ‘weird,’ being able to speak about it with passion will attract the right people into your orbit.”
The best part, she adds, is that the bar for obligation is low. “You are under no obligation to follow up with someone if they did not strike you as interesting. Meeting new people is generally a VERY low-risk/high-reward activity, if you do it right.”
From the other perspective, talent acquisition leader John Cox agrees with Jahns. “Authenticity goes a long way. Biases happen, and there isn’t much a job seeker can do but put their best foot forward,” he says.
Be Selective with Networking
You don’t need to grab every networking opportunity that comes your way. You can choose what works for you. Marketing and operations leader Staci Brindle recommends finding events that have more of a formal structure/program, for instance.
“I typically avoid the just mingle-and-swap-cards kind of events these days. Instead, I like events that have a bit of a presentation, and there can be some light mingling before and after, and the presentation offers a nice conversation starter and makes breaking the ice more natural,” she says. Two of her favorite events, with local chapters nationwide, include 1 Million Cups and Alignable Alliance.
Kickstand Communications CEO Molly George agrees that networking isn’t one-size-fits-all. “I prefer 1:1 networking, for example, versus large events. Finding a format that worked with my strengths and personality type helped me come to really love networking.”
Lani Rosales, Chief Operating Officer at TheAmericanGenius.com, Co-Founder at #BASHH, Founder of FB Groups Austin Digital Jobs (ADJ) and Remote Digital Jobs (RDJ), and queen of awkward networking (sorry, Lani) offers this helpful article about curating your very own networking strategy.
“The best approach is customized to you and it changes over time,” she says. “We all build our networks in layers over time based on our needs, the needs of those around us, and what the context of our lives are.”
Reframe Your Fears
If your insecurities are still getting in the way, life coach Laura Bond Williams recommends a technique called “laddering,” which is a way to reframe your thoughts to find a mindset that puts you more at ease.
Here’s how it works:
- You think: “Everyone at the event already knows each other.”
- To ladder that thought, shift the all-or-nothing label “everyone” and crack open some possibility.
- “It’s possible that some people will know each other, and they are open to meeting new people.”
- And then even: “It’s possible everyone at the event wants to meet new people.”
- Do this until you reframe your thinking in a way that eases your fears.
“Laddering is a way to play around with different words to find what feels good. Then we can connect with others in a confident, meaningful way,” Bond Williams adds.
“In other words, assume people will like you (they most likely will!). Try to release as much anxiety as you can ahead of time…it does not help the situation and is actually counterproductive because other people pick up on it,” she says.
Prepare Icebreaker Questions
One of DeNucci’s most popular resources is her list of Conversation Starting Questions from her book More Than Just Talk. These questions are thoughtfully categorized by situation, so you have a head-start wherever you may be: at a networking event, a social gathering, a dog park, or even on a plane.
Some of our favorites from DeNucci’s list range from expected, like “Have you attended one of these events before?” to what she calls “buried treasure” questions, like “What movie do you think everyone should watch before the age of 21?”
“Social awkwardness can be remedied with time, training, and practice. Start interactions with friendly eye contact and a warm smile. Introduce yourself, offer to shake hands, and get the other person’s name,” she recommends. Then, begin your conversation with easy, small-talk topics prompted by the questions she offers on her website. “But don’t get stuck there! Listen carefully to others’ answers and listen for clues on what to ask next or what you might have in common.”
Other Tried-and-True Tactics
Some of the other great pieces of advice that we received include:
“Volunteer at the registration table! I’m strongly introverted and have found that having a ‘job’ at events gives me a chance to greet everyone without the horror of finding people to mingle with,” says WordCove, LLC, Founder and Chief Word Nerd LuAnn Glowacz. “The fewer people I know in the room, the better this works.”
“I think it was Lani Rosales that advised me eons ago to be one of the first people to show up,” says Andrea Schulle, Chief Ideator at Adris Media Group. “That way, people find you versus you trying to pick out who you want to talk to in a crowded room of already partnered-up people.”
“For in-person networking events, remind yourself of your Why. Why are you attending? What will networking provide you?” advises Marketing VP Kirsten Longnecker. “Then make a game of it to distract yourself. For example, try to get everyone you chat with to say a certain word, like ‘align.'”
“Don’t be a wallflower,” says content marketing writer and strategist John Egan. That doesn’t mean you have to work the room, though. Instead, you can “talk to one person. Just one. If you click with that person, then perhaps they’ll introduce you to some of their contacts, and so on.”
“People want to talk about themselves,” Ellen Decareau, Stretch Dollar’s Head of Communications and Brand, reminds us. So, if you’re networking with someone who might have a potential job opportunity for you, “ask questions about the company, about their needs and what they like about the company. You’ll come across as interested in them and start to understand if this is a good fit at the same time.”
Feeling more confident? We hope so! Don’t forget that your recruiter is a great resource for similar career advice while you’re out networking for your next career move.