Success is largely determined by an ability to play to your strengths. If you happen to be shy or introverted, don’t limit your dreams or count yourself out just because you don’t fit the traditional image of an entrepreneur. There is more than one path to success.
Networking events, however, tend to be designed for a particular personality -- the "work hard, play hard," never-met-a-stranger type. Rooms filled with crowds of people -- not to mention the pressure to be interesting and likeable -- is enough to give most introverts sweaty palms.
While visibility is a natural part of networking, that doesn’t mean you have to be the center of attention. Rather than approaching networking like an extrovert, introverts should relax, plan ahead and let their true personalities shine through.
Here are some helpful hints.
1. Manage expectations. If networking events make you nervous, don’t psych yourself out with unrealistic expectations. You may not meet 20 new contacts or impress others with your best joke -- and that’s okay. One quality conversation is more beneficial than 20 superficial ones.
2. Prepare. Plan ahead and prepare some icebreakers. Open-ended questions spur interesting conversations. Most people love to talk about themselves, their work and their hobbies. Ask questions like, “How long have you been a member of the host organization?” or “What’s your favorite part of your job?”
3. Set a time limit. When you decide ahead of time how long you’ll stay at an event, it makes the commitment finite and much less intimidating. At a minimum, give yourself 20 minutes to get your nametag, grab a drink and meet at least one new person. Often, all you need is a few minutes to adjust to the environment. You may be surprised at how often you’ll stay longer than planned.
4. Ask for an introduction. If there’s a particular person you’d like to meet, try to find a common connection and request an introduction. LinkedIn makes this very easy -- and if that doesn’t work, approach the event’s host. You’ll get much further with an introduction from a common acquaintance than approaching someone out of the blue.
5. Practice empathetic listening. Introverts are usually fully-engaged and fantastic listeners. Because most people are better at talking than listening, you’ll stand out as someone who values others.
6. Share your personal stories. Challenge yourself to open up. If you ask consecutive questions without sharing information about yourself, it can start to feel like an interrogation. Participating in the conversation will help it to flow more naturally.
7. Practice. If you’re still extremely nervous or unsure, challenge yourself with low- or no-risk situations. Drive to a networking event in the next town over where you likely won’t know anyone. Experiment with new conversation-starters or stories. That way, even if you make a complete fool of yourself, it won’t matter.
8. Take small steps. With increased practice, you’ll become more comfortable in social situations and with sharing your true personality. Make it a habit to take advantage of everyday opportunities to network. At the office, take small breaks to walk around and casually socialize with your colleagues. Once a week, invite a colleague to join you for lunch or coffee.
Related: How to Make Networking Suck Less
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.