Here’s another guestpost from regular contributor Dave Baldwin. Today Dave shares with us how being an introvert can work for you, not against you, in the world of networking. Enjoy!

Steve HandI recently interviewed Steve Hand, current Director of the Raleigh-area Business Network International (BNI) chapters since 2007. BNI is a referral-based business networking organization. Members commit to joining an individual chapter for at least one year, and each chapter is “exclusive,” meaning that no two direct competitors can join the same chapter.

I belong to a BNI chapter myself, and as an introvert and a writer, I’ve personally noticed that BNI offers some great opportunities—while at the same time presenting a key challenge. Networking does not come naturally to me, and I’ve noticed that I’m not alone in this regard. When I walk into a room filled with people, my immediate tendency is to scan the room and look for people I already know. There have been times when I “lucked out” by happening upon one or two people as introverted as I was. Usually, we would stick to each other for the entire duration of the event. I’m just not a “work the room” kind of guy.

I opened the conversation by asking Steve what general lessons he had learned about networking since starting out with BNI. “There are two areas to focus on when it comes to networking: your intentions and your activity,” says Steve. “If your intentions are right, your activities may not be as effective as they could be, but sooner or later, they will catch up.”

How does this apply to an introvert in the world of networking?

Steve recommended How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. “Get interested in other people,” Steve said. “There’s a difference between being ‘interested’ and being ‘interesting.’ Extraverts tend to want to be ‘interesting,’ meaning that they have a tendency to talk about what they do and what they’re up to. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s natural. Being ‘interested,’ on other hand, is about focusing on the other person and taking a genuine interest in them. That’s a lot easier by nature for an introvert to do.”

Looking back on my own networking experience, I have found this to be true. There have been times when I tried too hard to get the other person to take an interest in me. I can’t recall a single instance where this has ever worked. There have been a number of times when I made great friends in networking situations. I can also recall a couple of conversations when I barely said a word. This has usually happened because I stumbled on a question that gave the other person an opening to talk about something important to them. I also sometimes find myself in the proximity of a fellow introvert, whom I can generally recognize by virtue of the fact that they’re either standing alone, or disengaged from a group conversation. In situations like this, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find someone who initially gave off what appeared to be hostile body language, only to warm right up when I initiated a conversation.

I also asked Steve about the general tendencies he’s observed among people who really benefit the most from participating in BNI and other networking groups. Steve’s answer should also come as good news to those of us on the introverted side of the fence. There are two elements to the characteristics of top performers:

  1. They do more “one-to-ones” than anybody else. A “one-to-one,” in BNI terminology, simply refers to meeting one person, usually at a coffee shop or other neutral location, to get to know that person in greater depth.
  2. They are more specific in their requests.

I’ve personally found that I like meeting people one-to-one much more than I like walking into a room filled with people standing elbow-to-elbow. I find the dynamics a bit awkward—for example, how does one break away from one conversation without seeming rude or inconsiderate? These issues generally don’t come up when meeting one-to-one. A one-to-one is more natural, and there’s a whole lot less pressure involved. One-to-ones also help to make bigger meetings less intimidating. I’ve noticed that when I started to have one-to-one meetings with the members of my chapter, the meeting started to feel more like walking into a roomful of friends.

As for the element of making specific requests, this can a bit more complicated—but focusing on one-to-one activity and by being “interested” rather than “interesting” makes it a lot simpler. In my case, I started out using a “shotgun” approach to networking. I initially believed that the more networking events I attended and the more business cards I handed out, the greater my chances of success would be.

I came to learn that this assumption was patently false—partly because the requests I made were general and vague. For example, I would often say that “a good referral for me is anyone who needs help with writing.” The vagueness of my requests, combined with the fact that I was spreading myself thin and failing to build quality relationships, resulted in inconsistent bursts of mismatched referrals. By contrast, I was looking for a job this past September, and my LinkedIn network led me to the names of key individuals in organizations where I was applying. In two cases, I was introduced to people with the ability to directly contact hiring decision-makers on my behalf.

Whether you belong to a BNI chapter or not, these are just a few strategies you can use to warm up your networking experience (and make more money!) Here is a quick recap:

  1. Meet people one-to-one as a regular part of your routine.
  2. Get interested in other people, rather than trying to figure out how to get them interested in you.
  3. Read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
  4. Make specific requests.

Steve Hand is an Executive Director with BNI, representing 11 North Carolina counties from Virginia to South Carolina, including Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Fayetteville. The region contains 38 chapters with more than 700 members and generates more $15 million in annual profit.

DaveDave Baldwin is a writer who has lived and worked in Raleigh, NC since 2007. He has self-published two books: Pied Piper Entrepreneurship (2009) and Get That Book Out of Your Head! (2009).

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