How to network when it doesn’t come naturally

Emily Barske

As you walk into the crowd of hundreds of students and employers at the career fair, you can feel your heart pounding, the blood rushing to your face and your suit trapping all the sweat from your forehead all the way to the tips of your fingers holding on to your portfolio.

It’s not that your résumé isn’t up to par. It’s not that you are under-dressed. 

It’s the fact that you are there to network.

For some students, striking up a conversation with a complete stranger, especially when they have to talk about themselves, isn’t their favorite thing to do. Unfortunately for those students, networking is huge part of college, and more importantly, it’s essential to the purpose of college — getting a job.

But while networking may never become your favorite thing to do — in fact, it may never reach your top 100 things to do — you can still find a way to become good at it.

Step 1: Prepare

No matter how good you are at engaging someone in a conversation, it’s important that you enter a networking event prepared with both physical materials and mental readiness.

“Research in advance some companies that you want to talk to,” said Meredith Williams, career coordinator for the College of Business. “Know enough of the basics about them that you feel comfortable. That will not only help them when you go to talk to them, but it will give you confidence because you feel prepared.”

Make sure to take care of the big preparation tasks like having an updated résumé, thinking through key points for your elevator speech and working on body language. But also do the little things like being up to date on current events, which can be helpful for small talk, Williams said.

Practice and preparation will help you with networking situations, but ultimately you just need to do it.

“The more you do something, the more comfortable you are at it and the better you get at it,” Williams said. “Just jump in there and try, and you know the first time might be scary, but the next time you do it, it will probably be less intimidating.”

Step 2: Play to your strengths

Both introverts and extroverts can network, but they have a preference for how they go about doing it, said Debra Sanborn, a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator master practitioner who regularly helps ISU students understand their personality type.

Knowing your personality type and preferences can help you become a successful networker.

“Those who have a preference for introversion are going to be much more engaged if they have an opportunity for a one-on-one conversation,” Sanborn said. “And that’s where they’re going to find the most comfort … to be able to ask questions and do some listening in a one-on-one, talk-to-this-individual, kind of dyadic communication.”

Think about what you have to offer the company and how your personality type would be a good fit for their company, Williams said. Reflect on what your own strengths are: are you a quick learner, extremely organized or good at seeing patterns?

“One of the things that I really take to heart is the more that we know about our strengths and how we can unlock our potential by knowing our strengths, I really think leads to confidence,” said Jennifer Leptien, program coordinator for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.

Step 3: Remember you’re there for a reason

Keep in mind that this is a networking event, and people are here to meet new individuals, which includes you.

“You wouldn’t be here, unless you were entitled to be here,” Sanborn said.

Susan Cain, a nationally-known speaker and writer on introversion, said the goal of a networking event “should be to find your people.”

“Forget the whole idea of ‘networking,’” Cain wrote in an article on her website “It’s a soulless, mechanistic word that encourages people to think of each other as instrumental cogs in a machine. Instead, look for people whose company you truly enjoy — people you sincerely like and want to keep in touch with.”

Step 4: Make yourself comfortable

One way to make yourself comfortable at a networking event is to get involved, Williams said. She suggests you get involved at a check-in table or volunteer for a committee so you have a purpose for talking to everyone as they walk through the door.

Cain recommends introverts volunteer to speak at speaking events because then people will come to them with conversation, rather than them having to seek one out.

Lastly, do whatever it takes to relax. It helps Sanborn to take deep breaths, count objects around her and find something to focus on, she said.

“Take breaks if you need them,” Williams said. “Reflect about what went well for you and maybe how you can improve.”