Wake-up Call: an introvert’s guide to networking

Tips on how to meet new people when you hate making small talk with strangers

The power of serendipity is hot in business circles. Silicon Valley campuses have been constructed to foster more “random collisions”. One key to creativity, many thinkers say, is unexpected interactions.

All that is well and good – for people who don't mind talking to strangers. But as an introvert, one of the situations I hate most is making small talk with people I don't know. Here's how I've managed to strike the balance between meeting new people – and being exposed to interesting new ideas – and not having to initiate awkward conversations:

– Make them come to you. The very best solution I’ve found for uncomfortable events where you don’t know anyone is arranging to be the speaker.

That might seem paradoxical, but there’s a difference between introversion and shyness; I’m actually far more comfortable on a stage in front of hundreds of people than I am chatting in a small group of folks I don’t know.


– Bring a friend. When you have a "wingman" at your side to help highlight your accomplishments at networking events, it can give you the confidence you need to approach others and break into conversations. Additionally, your friend likely knows people in the room that you don't, and vice-versa, so you can trade "warm introductions" and connect with new people. Just avoid the temptation to use your friend as a crutch and spend the evening talking with them. That defeats the purpose of the whole enterprise.

– Have a few opening lines ready. The hardest part of interacting with a stranger is the opening. How do you get started? What do you say? That was the challenge facing a coaching client of mine, a talented executive.

She frequently attended high-powered alumni events but wasn’t sure where to begin the conversation.

We developed a few questions she felt comfortable using that didn’t sound hackneyed, but opened the door to a more substantive discussion.

They don’t have to be profound; the goal is to kick-start a dialogue. Possibilities include: What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now? How do you spend most of your time? How did you hear about the event?

And when nothing else works, I’ve often simply said, “I don’t know anyone here. Can I talk to you?” No one has ever said no.

– Research in advance. Finally, it’s easier to talk to someone if they don’t feel like a stranger. Even if you haven’t met them in person before, having some background information about them can suggest possible topics of conversation. You don’t have to become a stalker; educated guesses and light online research can carry you pretty far.

For instance, most fundraisers have a host committee listed on the invitation. If you want to make the experience more pleasant, you can quickly Google them and see if anyone seems particularly interesting, or look for commonalities you can bring up, such as having attended the same college or living in the same neighbourhood.

Talking to strangers will probably never be comfortable for me. But with these strategies, it's possible to make just a little more room for serendipity in our lives. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of 'Reinventing You' and 'Stand Out'.