August 11, 2009

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The shy connector

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Planned talk / speaker notes:

The Shy Connector: How to get strangers to talk to you.

Hi, I’m Sacha Chua, and I’m an introvert. <clapping>

You might be, too. Do you prefer bookstores over bars? Puzzles more than parties? Close friends instead of crowds? If so, you might be an introvert.

It can be hard to connect as an introvert. LinkedIn and Facebook can feel like popularity contests. How many friends do you have? Should you say yes to invitations from strangers? Meetups can be overwhelming. So many choices to make, so many people to meet…

So what can you do if you’re shy?

There are plenty of books and blogs about social networking, because success and happiness often depend on whom you know and who knows you.

“Sell yourself!” “Brand yourself!” “Attend as many events as you can!” “Talk to people in the elevator!” they advise. Right.

Most of the networking tips I’ve read are geared toward extroverts who don’t need tips on how to talk to strangers.

Me, I hate starting conversations. I find it hard to make small talk. I’m too shy to reach out. Following up takes focused effort.
Sound familiar? Ever felt that way, too?

Here are seven things I’ve learned about connecting as an introvert. I hope these tips will help you play to your strengths.

Tip 1: It’s okay to be an introvert.

You don’t need to fake being extroverted. You don’t need to be a glad-handing, business-card-throwing networker in order to connect. Just listen and ask a few questions during conversations. Give yourself quiet time to recharge. Connect online if you feel more comfortable that way. Figure out what works for you.

For me, blogging often works out better than going to events. Now that I understand that about myself, it’s easier for me to say, “No, I’m planning to stay home” when faced with an invite. I’m much more comfortable blogging than partying, and I can share in a way I simply can’t do in person.

Tip 2: Change your perspective.

It’s not about selling yourself. It’s not about marketing your personal brand. It’s not about figuring out what other people can do for you. It’s about focusing on what you can do to help other people.

Focus on what can help other people be happier and more successful. Ask questions. Explore ideas.

Focusing the spotlight on the other person makes it easier to make conversation and get to know others.

Tip 3: Give people reasons to talk to you, both online and offline.

Most people find it hard to start a conversation, too. Do them a favour and give them an excuse to approach you.

An interesting hat makes you easy to find in a crowd. Accessories with character draw remarks. Keywords on your nametag lead to conversations.

Online? Share your interests and thoughts. People can find you through search engines and reach out to learn from you.

My favourite? Giving a presentation. Talking to a hundred people at once is easier than talking to two at a time because I can rehearse what I want to say. I reach way more people this way, and I don’t have to start any conversations!

Tip 4: Look for ways to help.

While you’re listening, think: What do I know? Who do I know? How can I help?

Have I read a book they might like? Have I talked to someone they should meet? Do I have an interesting idea that can save them time?

Even if you can’t help right away, if you make it a point to remember their need, you may be able to connect the dots later.

Tip 5: Give yourself homework.

Following up with someone is easier when you’ve promised to send them a link or introduce them to someone else who can help.

That’s why you should always carry something you can use to take notes. Why worry about forgetting when you can write things down?

Tip 6: Make it easy to get to know you.

So you’ve met someone, learned about their interests, and followed up. How do you build the connection from there?

Even if you don’t like talking about yourself, you can make it easier for other people to get to know you.

Share your interests, skills, and goals. The more people know about what you can do, the more you can find opportunities to help them.

A personal website or profile page is a good way to start. Link it in your e-mail signature and put it on your business card.

A blog is even better. If you share tips, ideas, and a bit of a personal touch, people might even subscribe and really get to know you over time. They might even help you grow! =)

Tip 7: Keep growing, and your network will grow with you.

As you develop your passions, improve your skills, and grow your network, you’ll be able to create more value — and more, and more, and more.

The more you understand your passions, the easier it is to communicate them.

The more you improve your skills, the more you can help others.

The more people you know, the more introductions and connections you can make.

If you share what you’re learning with people, your network can grow along with you.

Then you won’t have to fake being an extrovert or drain yourself of energy; people and opportunities will simply flow to you.

Which of these tips would you like to focus on, practice, and learn more about? How can I help you explore your networking potential?


Questions? Thoughts? Leave a comment here or use my contact me privately.

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Previous version:


vote thumbs-up if you liked it! =)

— From pre-presentation plans (August 11) —
These tips are slightly different from the presentation, but still have the same flavour. I love the insights people have shared in the comments. Feel free to check them out and add your own tips!

I’m planning a presentation called “The Shy Connector: How to talk to strangers How to get strangers to talk to you”. I realized that most networking books focus on helping people act more extroverted, but I’ve found ways to use my introverted nature to connect with people.

Here are some of my weaknesses and how I’ve worked around them:

Weakness Strength In practice
Hate starting a conversation with strangers Comfortable with being different Some of my quirks and interests turn out to be great conversation-starters. People often start conversations by asking me about my hat, my computer, my technology interests, my speeches, or even just my obvious happiness and energy.
Hate making small talk Love learning and asking questions I never ask people what they do. I ask people what they’re interested in, what they’re passionate about, or what could help them be happier or more successful. That makes people think, and it results in conversations that can teach me something new, change the way I think, and help me remember people.
Hate going out Comfortable with hosting people I sometimes feel overwhelmed in places people like going to “hang out”, such as busy restaurants and bars. I prefer to host small get-togethers at home, where I can keep group numbers low and I’m in familiar territory.
Hate searching for common ground Love learning and sharing things online One of the things I don’t like about talking to strangers is looking for common interests we can talk about. Instead of going to general networking events, I prefer to go to conferences and talks where the presentations naturally give us topics of conversation. I’m also comfortable sharing what I’m learning online. Many of my conversations now start with someone else telling me that they’ve read my blog, and the conversation goes straight to interests we both have.
Hate blathering Love writing and reflecting Blogging helps me relax and communicate in real-life conversations. If I’ve written about something, it’s easier for me to talk about it because I’ve spent some time thinking about what I want to say and how I want to say it. The result: more confidence during conversations, and clearer communication too!

Here’s a rough list of the tips I plan to share:

1. Be yourself. You don’t have to be a fake extrovert. You don’t have to learn how to enjoy small talk or put on a new personality. You can use your characteristics as an introvert to connect with people, and you might even be able to connect with more people and at deeper levels than the popular kids in your high school would.

2. Reframe the situation. It’s not about selling yourself. It’s not about becoming popular. It’s about finding ways you can help other people, and it’s about learning more.

3. Give people reasons. If you hate talking to strangers because you’re afraid of those awkward moments when you’re both looking for reasons to talk, skip that by giving people reasons to talk to you. Me, I find it easier to present to a thousand people than to talk to a single person, because I can prepare for presentations (and it’s fun!). That gives people reasons to come up to me afterwards and start a conversation with me about something we’re both interested in. I also do quirky things: wear interesting hats, smile a lot, have an awesome business card–all of which have led to interesting conversations I didn’t start. Most people are just as scared of starting conversations as you are, so make it easy for them.

4. Help others. Treat conversations as learning opportunities. Find out what could help people become happier or more successful. What books or blog posts have you read that they might be interested in? What tools have you tried or heard of that might fit their needs? Even the act of asking questions helps people clarify their thoughts. You might not be able to help them right away, but you might meet someone else who can help, and then you can connect the dots. You’ll learn a whole lot in the process, too.

5. Look for homework. Following up is hard. I’ve come home from conferences with stacks of business cards that I didn’t know what to do with aside from sending a quick note about how nice it was to see people. It’s much easier to follow up with people and continue the conversation if you focused on helping people. If you follow up with an article someone is interested in or an introduction to another person who could help make things happen, your follow-up email or note has real value. Carry a notebook with a flap for business cards, a PDA, or some other note-taking device, and use it to keep track of your homework.

6. Build history. Extroverts have this easy. They’re out having coffee with their buddies or golfing with their bosses. If you’re anything like me, you have a hard enough time finding ways to comfortably hang out with your close friends, much less acquaintances. You need stories and shared experiences to deepen relationships, though. Build that history by making it easy for people to keep in touch with you. Me, I find it difficult to call people up or invite them to hang out, but I’m comfortable blogging. I might be too shy to reach out to people I’ve just met, but they can read my blog to learn more about who I am, and they can continue the conversation in the comments if they want to. If they blog, that gives me a way to get to know them too. Make it easy for people to keep in touch with you.

7. Practice. The more you listen, the more you think, the more you write, the more you speak, the more clearly you’ll know what you want to say and how you want to say it. It’s good for self-discovery, too. Listen to people and figure out what you resonate with and what you’re interested in. Try different ways of expressing your thoughts. Treat small talk as a game, and use it to develop your skill at asking questions and sharing what you think. Use it to try different techniques. When you’re not personally invested in it–when you’re not worrying that a conversational stumble is equal to personal rejection and failure–things become easier and almost fun.


There’s something interesting in here that I’d like to figure out and share. Is there anything that particularly resonates with you? Is there anything you’d like to learn more about?