Networking is a crucial business skill. A great networker has the ability to have different conversations with a variety of people and make connections with people who have different backgrounds; people from different industries, with varying skill set, professions and interests.
It requires you to put yourself out there, which doesn't come naturally for many.
Regardless of your current comfort level with networking, it's important in order to grow your career.
Here are a few tips for introverts that will help make networking easier:
1. Practice. Networking is a skill, and anyone can get better at it with practice. It takes attending many events and doing it frequently to become comfortable. Get good at small talk. The easiest way to do this is to read or listen to interesting things that you can bring up in a conversation. Whether it's a podcast, book, or newspaper article, having an interesting topic to bring up helps break the ice when meeting strangers.
If there is a big event that is coming up and you know there will be potential good connections there, go to a few smaller events beforehand. They don't even have to be relevant to your industry or role. Just get out there! The purpose is to gain experience at small talk. Sites like Eventbrite or the websites of any associations you belong to are great resources for finding events.
2. Do your research. Stress and anxiety can be controlled depending on how much information is available online. Look up what the venue looks like. If it's a repeat event, see if you can find pictures from the previous year to scope it out.
Focus on what you can control. Go in with as much information as you can gather so that it can be a more comfortable, enjoyable experience.
3. Set a goal. What do you want to get out of a networking event? Is it a specific number of business cards? Is it a general idea of what types of companies are there? Is it finding a potential mentor or mentee?
It doesn't matter what it is, the important thing is to go in having a goal … and tell someone what that goal is to hold you accountable.
That way, if you end up getting there and suddenly get nervous you have a goal to drive you.
4. Utilize the food or drink line. It can feel awkward to go up to a group that is already mid-conversation and introduce yourself.
Another trick is to head straight to where the refreshments are being served.
The food or drink line will be your secret weapon in striking up a conversation naturally then you can walk to a table together to continue the conversation, or they can introduce you to the group they've already met.
5. Listen. If you're not a big talker or socialite, that's OK! The key to effective networking is listening -- listening to the other person's needs, why they're at the conference or event, or how they heard about it.
Don't think about the next thing you'll say or how you'll pivot the conversation to be about your business.
Instead, just listen. Ask questions, be curious and the conversation will be a lot easier.
• Tom Gimbel is founder and CEO of the LaSalle Network.