A Post Covid Cautionary Tale: The Extrovert That Forgot How to Network

What I meant to say… “Hi, I’m Stefanie, Chief Empowerment Officer of WNY People Development. We provide engaging, interactive, and customizable training and development experiences for your next generation of leaders.”

What I actually said… “Hi, I’m fully vaccinated!” as I aggressively pushed my elbow to meet theirs, pulled it back, and then awkwardly dangled my hand to shake theirs with apprehension.

What a great impression I must have made at my first in-person networking event in over a year. Smooth, right? Hardly…SO EMBARRESSING!

Look at my Meyers-Briggs Assessment, and I am off the charts on extroversion; I am energized when surrounded by people, especially people I don’t know, because it’s an opportunity to meet and learn about someone new. Early on in my career, I consulted all over the country, and found so much joy getting to know a new city or town, the people that lived and worked in it, and the stories that made them.

The classic saying, “never met a stranger”, that was me…apparently until this week.

Blame covid, isolation, social distancing, remote work, or whatever, but the fact is, after 40+ years of being tagged the “social butterfly”, I had absolutely no idea how to act in a professional, networking setting, and it rocked me to the core.

If an extreme extrovert like me, who has been counting down the days to attend a live event felt uncomfortable, awkward, and frankly, kinda forgot the basics of networking, how are other business professionals faring as more people get vaccinated, restrictions are eased, and normalcy is returning to our work lives?

To not have an encore of my vaccination status announcement at my next in-person event, it was time to revisit simple strategies I have utilized over the years to build my network, and I wanted to share with others who are feeling apprehensive to step away from the computer screen. When you are confronted with LIVE people again in a networking setting, remember these five things:

SEE, TURN, & SMILE The easiest way to open the door for conversation with someone new, is to demonstrate approachability through body language. Looking people in the eye, makes them they feel seen; when we feel seen, we feel valued. Everyone wants to feel important and giving someone good eye contact means you are focused on them, and their story. Turning your body towards the person also shows interest; no one wants to speak to someone’s shoulder or back. Lastly, smile. Smiling releases endorphins, our happy hormones. Did you know that humans mirror the responses of those we interact with? A simple smile will put you both at ease as endorphins multiply, setting the stage for a comfortable space for connection.

OPEN ENDED QUESTIONS Many years ago, one of my grad school professors shared that the best way to learn about someone new is to say “Tell me your story”… and then shut up. She was right! I have used this statement more times than I can count, and OH, the things I have found out! When you provide an open-ended opportunity to share, you learn a LOT! People love to talk about themselves, and without the restraints of a “yes” or “no” response, you tend to get more information. Trust is a foundational need for long term relationships and learning someone’s story helps to build it faster because, through these discussions, you discover commonalities, shared goals, and symbiotic opportunities which could lead to collaborative business options in the future.

HOW CAN I HELP YOU? No successful company succeeds in a silo; especially for entrepreneurs and small business owners, an extensive network of connections is necessary to build branding, marketing, and drives lead generation. As the conversation continues with a new contact, find out how you can support them and their business, and ask what they need. They will appreciate the outreach, and in my experience, helping others grow always comes back to you in a positive way, personally and professionally.

CONTACT INFO Don’t forget the business cards! You could have the greatest dialogue, innovate a future partnership, and discuss next steps, but if you do not know how to get in touch, the conversation was a waste of time. There’s no chat box to type contact info at in-person events, so make sure to pack those cards! (Ridiculous reminder? Maybe. Full transparency, I almost forgot to bring mine this week.)

KEEP MOVING There’s a delicate balance at all networking events; the purpose is to connect and build relationships, but you can’t spend so long doing so that you miss out on others in the room. Politely remove yourself from conversations that start to run long with a request for a one-on-one coffee, or dare I suggest, follow up ZOOM (too soon?) at a later date. This way, you’re demonstrating to your new connection that they are valued, and deserve focused time and discussion, but you create an “out”, allowing you to repeat the networking cycle with others in attendance, and build additional connections.

The world has changed, and although we may never fully get back to how we functioned professionally pre-Covid, in-person networking is here to stay. For many of us, myself included, it may take some time to get used to being around real, live, people, even for extroverts. These five simple strategies are a great jumping off point as we figure out how to be “normal” again, as we trade out sweatpants in our dining room for business casual in a conference room.

If you happen to see me at a future networking event, I promise to share my name this time, not my vaccination record.