How to survive "working the room" (Schmoozing for Introverts)

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "detest, abhor, and repudiate," how much do you dislike networking events?

If you answered 5+, I can relate! I'm a naturally anxious introvert who prefers one-on-one conversations in quiet spaces. The idea of "working the room" at a networking event made me cringe up until a few years ago.

How on earth can anyone actually enjoy walking into a room full of people they don't know? How could one brazenly strike up a conversation with these poised, self-assured professionals? There have been times when I was so intimidated, I almost turned around and walked out the door.

I've gotten more accustomed to networking events over the years, and I've learned a few tricks along the way. If you are a little uncomfortable at these types of events, I'm hoping they help you as well!

  • Practice an opener. My recommended icebreakers are open-ended questions that invite the other person to delve deeply, such as "So, what led you to your particular career choice and why do you like it?" Say your opener a couple of times to yourself as you muster up the courage to walk in. It will help avoid the occasional memory fail when you first meet someone, then can't think of what to say after introductions. 
  • Find someone who looks lost. Sometimes you'll think you're the only person who isn't engaged in animated discussion, and then you'll notice someone on the periphery, looking even more unsure of themselves than you are. The kindest people I know are those who make it their mission to befriend their fellow introverts at a reception or conference event. Approaching with a simple question, "I'm not much of a schmoozer by nature, are you?" can be a lifesaver!
  • Listen deeply. Introverts are remarkably good listeners, often picking up on subtle nuances that can transform a superficial conversation into a meaningful one. I recall starting a brief exchange with someone who worked in higher education with a computer science department, and she mentioned a program she recently launched. I asked her about "women in tech" initiatives, which led us to a thoughtful discussion about diversity and inclusion in the field of computer science and engineering. 
  • When all else fails... Stand near the beverages. Lots of people, especially other introverts, use a trip to the beverage station as an excuse to extricate themselves from a conversation. When they've gotten their drink, they are ready to begin a new exchange and you'll be positioned perfectly to meet them. (This trick works exceptionally well at holiday parties too!)

Know that if noisy, crowded rooms are not easy for you to navigate, there are LOTS of others who feel the same way. It may seem like everyone except you is cool, calm, and collected. In reality, it's likely that at least a third of the folks in the room are grappling with some level of anxious introversion, social anxiety, or neurodivergence--all of which can make big events stressful.

In my experience, introverts are very often perceptive listeners, intuitive conversationalists, and compelling storytellers. These strengths may be obscured by a reluctance to strike up a conversation. If it helps, think of the next networking event you attend as a laboratory for experimentation. Try these strategies, see which works for you, and examine what the results were for different tactics.

If you happen to see someone standing by the beverages looking at loose ends, that'll be me. I'd be deeply grateful if you'd come over and say hello.

Let's talk about YOUR next step! If you're anticipating a career transition, drop me a note to explore the idea of career coaching. You are invited to sign up for my weekly "Career Authentically" newsletter as well.