Networking tips for the shy or introverted

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesWhenever I write about networking, I get requests for tips about what techniques work best for shy people. I guess I understand why. The word networking conjures an image of a person who zips around a conference or party, chatting up what looks like a flock of followers. But many folks nurture large networks without being extroverted or outgoing. Instead they build relationships one-on-one or in small groups or devise novel ways of staying in touch. Often, they are gifted at helping others behind the scenes.

Gretchen Rubin, an author who writes the immensely popular blog, The Happiness Project, was grappling with this very question around the time she started her blog. Gretchen is very smart, especially about figuring out what she needs to do in her career. (She's got two degrees from Yale, has written three books, and clerked for a Supreme Court Justice.) But she is an introvert. And she says that networking does not come naturally. In fact, that's part of how we met. We belong to a women's literary salon and one day she sent me an email asking me to have lunch. She told me she heard I was a natural networker and she wanted to understand how I thought about it. I told her she was already networking by reaching out and introducing herself to me.

In the year that followed, I got a chance to watch the many ways that Gretchen conquered her self-described resistance to networking because she wrote about a series of experiments she did in her blog. A few things she did: She started a children's literature book group. She committed to making three new friends in every new situation. She went to a professional conference even though she did not know many people who would be there. She asked for help.

The key is that Gretchen did things that grew out of her personality and her affinities, which means that she was just being herself, which is what good networking is all about. She also found ways to weave her networking into her everyday life.

Here are a few other ideas:

Use Facebook and LinkedIn.
If the idea of getting out and catching up in person exhausts you, the easiest way to keep up with people from all corners of your life is to get active on Facebook or LinkedIn and start connecting (and reconnecting) with people you know. Think of Facebook as a virtual cafe where people easily converse between the tables. Once you join and reconnect with old friends, play with different ways of contacting people. Send some direct messages to catch up with old friends. Write status updates that alert people to what's going on in your life. Search for groups that have to do with your interests, join them, and get involved in discussions on the group's page. Think of LinkedIn as a conference that's always in session. Fill out your profile in detail, upload your email addresses and connect with your contacts, join alumni networks, and post or answer questions in the Answers section. Before you get started, read Guy Kawasaki's, post, Ten Ways to use LinkedIn, and Penelope Trunk's post on LinkedIn etiquette.

Write.
This one is simple and there are countless ways to do it. Gretchen sends Valentine's Day cards to keep in touch and delight people when the holiday rush of cards has dissipated. Others connect with people at the end of the year, by sending periodic article clippings, or by remembering birthdays and sending greetings (Facebook makes it easy to remember birthdays, as does Birthdayalarm.com). If you work independently as a consultant, freelancer, or small business owner, think about sending an email newsletter to remind people of what you're up to. If you've got expertise you want to share, write articles in trade publications or start a blog. Whatever you do, close your greeting with an invitation that others get in touch with you.

Practice starting conversations.
When you meet someone new, strike up a conversation quickly. Speaking up within the first few moments matters, according to Ilise Benun, a marketing consultant and the author of "Stop Pushing Me Around: A Workplace Guide for the Shy, Timid, and Less Assertive." Those first moments set the tone for the entire interaction. Her suggestion: if you're eating alone, sit at the bar and start talking with the bartender or someone sitting near you. She gives three good conversation starters -- simply ask "how are you?," comment on something (the food, what someone is reading), offer to share something you have (a newspaper). Once you've gotten comfortable doing this, you can apply it to any situation where you find it hard to talk to a person you've just met.

Any other ideas for the shy, introverted -- or anyone else who finds the idea of networking daunting?