Networking events are nerve-wracking enough to make anyone self-conscious, but they’re particularly difficult for introverts, says Dr. Bernardo J. Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. “When you’re self-conscious, you’re critical of everything you do and say. You feel like you’re standing in front of a mirror—and that shuts people down.”
Not exactly the ideal mental space in which to grow your professional network.
So what’s a shy person to do? “The biggest mistake people make is thinking that conversation just kind of happens—that it’s magical and that that’s why they can’t do it,” says Carducci. “It actually follows a particular script. If you master that, you can master conversation.”
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Follow this foolproof plan, courtesy of Carducci. It’ll help you leave with a few business cards, some good conversations in the books and a stronger network (no sweaty palms involved).
1. Arrive early
“Introverts tend to have a highly responsive nervous system,” says Carducci. Think of a volume control knob on a stereo: Introverts’ internal volume is turned up a little bit higher than average, he says. “They’re more sensitive to social stimulation and ambient noise.” That’s why they tend to congregate on the outsides of social gatherings: “They’re trying to minimize the excessive amount of stimulation,” says Carducci.
Your best bet is to show up early. This way, you get to adjust to the level of the noise as it rises up, says Carducci. Plus, if you’re the first one there, you can talk one-on-one—something that’s less nerve-wracking than trying to break into a group, he notes.
2. Focus on the shared environment
“A real problem for introverts is how to start talking to people,” says Carducci. “They tend to wait for people to come to them.” After all, it’s easy to worry about making an extroverted attempt to win people over—and put so much pressure on yourself that you don’t even try. The good news? The best opening lines are simple. Carducci suggests commenting on the situation you’re both in (a keynote speaker, the catered food or even a flower arrangement).
Read more: 9 Habits of People Who Are Always on Time
3. Prep your intro lines
After you’ve broken the ice and made contact, three pieces of information should come next, says Carducci: Your name, something about yourself and what brought you to the event. “This helps further the conversation, giving you something to speak about,” he says. The best part: You don’t need to wing it. “Think about what you’re going to say beforehand,” he suggests.
4. Throw something else out there
A networking conversation is all about finding commonalities, right? So dig a little bit deeper once you’re done with introductions. Maybe you’re curious about the latest computer security software or are seeking advice on how to manage your image online. Expanding on what you said before—or on what the other person brought to the table—provides more avenues for conversation, says Carducci.
“The rule here is that you either support the topic they bring up or provide an alternative,” says Carducci.
5. Keep thinking, ‘How can I help them?’
“A big mistake people make in networking is to think you’re only getting information for yourself,” says Carducci. “That’s not networking—that’s being selfish. Networking is designed to see how you can help others and bring people together.”
No experience in their field? Maybe you have a friend who works in their industry—or have read up about it. “People who are bad at conversation fail to talk,” says Carducci. “They don’t participate because they think anything they say is not interesting.” So the key to a good conversation, then, is always building off of what the other person is saying.
Once you’re entrenched in a dialogue, your sense of self-consciousness is more likely to disappear, too, says Carducci. “For introverts, letting go of self-consciousness transforms the tone from nervous to excited.”
6. Break into a group
When it comes time to talk to a different group—and you have to strike up yet another conversation—Carducci relies on the “wait and hover” technique. Approach your new group, but stay at the periphery, listening, observing or nodding your head. Get the group used to your being there, then once you have the gist of the conversation, make a comment of support, says Carducci. Something like, “That’s a great idea—I really agree with that” is great, and provide additional details similar to the statement you’re agreeing with (like information about how you dealt with a similar problem in your work). One thing to avoid off the bat: Giving your unsolicited opinion, which may come across as harsh in the beginning of a conversation.
7. End the conversation the right way
The best way to end a discussion—good or bad—follows a pattern: Let the person know you have to duck out, thank them for speaking, highlight something in the conversation you enjoyed (so they know you were listening), and make the opportunity for future contact, says Carducci. You could say, “I have to run, but thanks so much for chatting—it was great hearing your thoughts. If you want to talk more, here’s my card.” And if mentioned working together in the future, make the statement more specific, like: “Maybe we could meet next week for coffee?”
Don’t be wary of chatting with several people, either. Doing so will actually make you more appealing to everyone, says Carducci. “If people see that you’re the kind of person who can talk to lots of people and that lots of people can talk to you, people will flock to you because you can bring people together,” he says.