I've already written a post on the basics of networking, but I wanted to address a specific post to all my introverts out there. For introverts, networking, especially networking events, can feel daunting. Here I'll go into some ways of framing networking that will help introverts and anyone who finds networking events to be a challenging experience.
Play to your Strengths
Introverts tend to have their energy drained by social interaction; this is part of what makes networking events so daunting for most introverts. But there are many ways to network. What environments make new people more comfortable for you? Is it helpful if the venue is familiar? Maybe getting to know a specific networking group is more comfortable. Or attending with someone else (all small business owners need to network, right? So invite a friend!) Networking events all have slightly different structures; maybe some work better for you than others? If one on one is comfortable for you but groups are terrifying, then avoid group events and turn to your existing network for connections to new people for meeting up over coffee. (More ideas on how to source people for one on one networking is in The Basics of Successful Networking in "The Who" section.)
Develop a Networking Event Strategy
Sometimes it can be helpful to enter networking events with a strategy in mind. Most networking events have some kind of a structure, and knowing that ahead of time can help inform a strategy. As an example, I've attending a networking event that starts with breakfast, there's an instruction to meet the folks at your table, then there's a speaker and some discussion topics with time to turn to your neighbor to discuss and then the event concludes; generally there are many folks chatting before and after the planned program. One strategy could be to not try an engage in conversation before or after the planned program; let that be your time. Another strategy might be to chat with the person to your left at the table while you eat your breakfast and don't worry to much about the person to your right. Another strategy might be to have a planned talking point that you want to share or ask others. A different strategy might be to not worry about what happens at the event and just follow up with table-mates after the event for a more low-key, personal exchange.
Ignore Trying to "Work a Room"
When you find yourself at a large networking event, continue to play to your strengths. Many introverts find deep conversations, one on one to be more comfortable than more superficial interactions or trying to interact with tons of people. That's perfect! Extroverts tend to shoot themselves in the foot when they fly through a networking event spending 5 minutes or less with each person. They might charm them, but they're not making a lasting connection. Having even a brief conversation where each of you get to know something meaningful about the other person is going to stick with someone far more than a bit of charm. The more you learn about another person (or they learn about you) the more likely they are to remember who you were tomorrow, so don't hesitate to focus on one or two people during the event. (And then follow up after the event!)
It's difficult to have a meaningful conversation at a brief networking event. If your preference is towards one on one conversations, then follow up with that new contact and build that connection! Quality and quantity are equally valuable when it comes to networks, so a small network of extremely loyal, connected folks can be equally (if not more) powerful as an enormous network of acquaintances. But it's going to take some follow up in order to build that loyal, connected network.
Reality Check Your Unconscious Expectations
Sometimes we get caught up in how networking events should go, or how often we should be attending networking events. "Should"s are generally pretty problematic; they come from outside us and are often kind of mean and arbitrary. Instead, let's re-frame what a "successful" networking effort looks like and make it fit you. Maybe a successful event is one where you hand out at least one business card? Maybe it's one where you simply attend? Maybe you go to a networking event no more than once a quarter? Or only once annually? All of these are valid options, plus anything else you can come up with.
The Value of Networking
Networking is only one way of the ways to promote your business, so it alone will not make or break your business. That being said, humans are wired to find in person interaction to be more impactful than flyers or Facebook ads. So however you do it, make sure there are some ways you promote your business that get you out from behind your computer screen. A good networking effort should be a manageable challenge that could take many forms. So, challenge yourself to get out and meet people face to face!