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?

  • Victor Calvert

    I’m definitely an introvert, but I haven’t had trouble starting conversations…I’m actually most frustrated with finding a good way to end them cleanly. I have a lot less difficulty with email because I can ask myself if I have covered everything I wanted to say; with a face-to-face conversation it’s not as easy (maybe because there isn’t a “Send” button?).

    I think part of my problem may also be that other people aren’t necessarily clear about when they think we’re done, and they don’t necessarily push to wrap things up; I’m not sure whether that’s politesse or something else.

    I’m generally not giving presentations and collecting business cards, so I’m probably not doing too badly, though more practice is always useful, and I should probably spend a bit more time staying in touch with people.

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    At events, I usually excuse myself from a conversation by thanking the person and saying I want to say hi to someone else. If it’s a great conversation, I’ve probably given myself homework, so I refer to that as a way of wrapping up and promising that we’ll continue the conversation some other time.

    I tend to do conversation wrap-ups by summarizing action items. My manager once told me that he felt intimidated by how structured the conversation was (I do agendas, too!), so now I ease up a little and do a lot more small talk around him until he decides to move to the main business. I still list action items at the end, though – it’s a great way to remember and confirm, and it also neatly brings things to a close.

    Phone, video and real-life casual conversations are a bit more awkward for me, but usually referring to another activity (lunch, etc.) helps.

  • http://www.jasonwatson.com.au Jason Watson

    Interesting post. I can relate to much of what has been said – great advice. For me, the key factor is being able to ask questions and being interested in their reply. There is always something you can ask somebody (Where they are from, why they are here). Make them open e.g. \Tell me about your…\ rather than \Is it from Canada\. Also, sharing something personal, perhaps even a vulnerability is a great way to build trust and develop the relationship.

    In response to Victor’s question: i agree with Sacha’s method, but would also add that it is ok for things just to tail off and go quiet. I think the usefulness of pauses and quiet periods in a conversation are understated. I hobby as a coach… and find that I can generate a lot of new thinking in my clients using this approach. Then again, if your purpose is to move away (you need to network with others etc…) then a simple \I enjoyed talking to you, I’ll see you later\ and a big smile normally does it for me.

    I like Sacha’s approach at asking ‘thinking questions’. When I moved from the UK to Australia I was at first surprised at people asking me \how’s your day going\ (English people don’t really ask strangers that). A few embarrassing moments later, I realised that these people didn’t necessarily want to know about my sick cat. I did end up adopting the saying myself… but have recently swapped to \What’s the best thing that has happened to you today?\. I enjoy watching their face change as they realise they need to do more than grunt \good thanks\.

    Another aspect I’d like to add is \Passion\. People tend to gravitate towards those who really believe in something… excitement is infectious. People have no problem talking at concerts because they are all passionate about the show. So, perhaps aim for the venue or \concert\ that you really enjoy… I am sure these people will be easier to talk to.

    This is a great subject… one that I feel quite passionate about!

  • http://clair.craftyneko.com Clair

    Reading your blog entry about the shy connector makes me relate all the more. I think that some time in the past I’ve tried being more extroverted and it simply drained me. It’s true that most of the advice given around is to become more extroverted. The thing is, when one is an introvert that advice is going to be difficult.

    I realize that I work best at connecting people I know well enough. I’ve gained new friends and acquaintances through blogging and using sites such as Plurk and Twitter. I even became good friends with some of my sister’s batchmates through these media. Building up history with them does matter a lot because those things lessen the effort of thinking up ways to introduce people etc.

    At conventions, I tend to be shy though. When I have questions, I don’t always stand up and ask them directly during the panel. I end up writing it on a card and sending it through one of the ushers or organizers. -_-; I don’t normally end up giving a lot of business cards but if ever I find someone with a cool shirt (with a design I like, or a slogan that says something geeky and funny) striking up a conversation becomes easier. A new acquaintance forms.

    I really think that it’s a challenge to be the shy connector but something workable. :)

  • http://nadishasigera.wordpress.com Nadisha Sigera

    I feel this is a great topic to be discussed and the techniques that can be used in networking are really interesting.

    I as a person is shy and always hesitate to start a conversation. Even when I get a chance to talk I try to avoid it. But after that when I ask my self “Do I really want to ignore people and want to stay aside of them?” the answer is totally different. Because I really like to get to know new people and be friends with them but when it comes to an action I totally ignore it. And now I try to overcome that but it seems very difficult for me. I feel others may not listen to me, may laugh at my language (because I am from a different country and English is not my mother tongue) and they may not understand what I am saying. It is also sometimes hard for me to express what is in my mind as it is when I talk. I feel it is very easy to communicate with a written method (emails, blogs, text messages, etc) rather than oral.But in real world when we interact with people we also have to have the skills to network with people by talking to them.

    I think public speaking also a good topic if you can write to think of. I am interested in the articles you write.

    Cheers

  • H

    First time reading this blog and posting a comment.

    I’m actually pretty extroverted. I love getting some people together and going to bars and if I see someone I want to talk to I will (with a small push/drink from my friends) head over and start talking to them. However, I’m usually disappointed by the conversation because its hard to move from small talk to a real conversation.

    I think your advise is good for anyone who wants to say “hi” to someone. Better to have a good conversation starter and see where it goes than to try small talk.

  • http://blog.bumblebeelabs.com/ Xianhang Zhang

    As a guy, this advice is extraordinarily useful for meeting other guys who are into the same stuff but almost completely useless for meeting girls.

  • http://nadishasigera.wordpress.com Nadisha Sigera

    I feel this article is written in general and it doesn’t really matter whether you are going to start a conversation with a girl or a boy…. It gives an idea how you can use your strengths to overcome your weaknesses.

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  • Greg

    You sure are cute! What kind of stuff are you interested in?

  • http://ent20dg.wordpress.com/ Donald Gee

    Hi,

    I’m very new to blogging so please be lenient while reading my first ever comment.

    I found this entry to be quite compelling as your description sounds, verbatim, like me. I’m the kind of guy who likes to sit in the corner and go home quietly when no one needs me.

    I wrote more thoughts about this on my blog however I must say that I do indeed find your pointers quite compelling and indeed effective. Over the years I’ve heard a lot of “You need to get up and talk to people more” and “Be more extroverted” but in the end I can’t seem to do it.

    Your point about helping others resonates with me as I have been doing it for as long as I remember and I never noticed how effective it was until just recently. I try to help people all the time as it does bring me joy, but over the past year I’ve been learning so much about a lot of interesting people simply because they want to ask me questions while I’m trying to help. I’ve become good friends with quite a few of them and I find that really rewarding.

    I still have difficulty building history and to be honest I’m quite aprehensive about blogging. Regardless I am willing to try and improve my digital presence to overcome some of my fears.

    Your advice really is useful for someone like me and I think it could really help.

    Thanks for your time.

  • http://amazon.com Mike

    This articles speaks my mind; I would have written it myself if I had your energy and clarity of expression.

    Please polish off this talk and take it on the road. Thousands of shy folk would benefit from learning these techniques.

  • Rick

    Thanks for the post! I’m an introvert who has been giving (programming) talks and blogging for a little over a year but have only been out of college for about two and a half and so am still struggling to figure out a lot of this stuff.

    The hardest thing I’ve found is building relationships. I will get home from a conference with a stack of cards and a list of email addresses from people but so far I’ve been unable to really do anything with this. Every time so far I’ve found I end up leaving the pile next to my desk and every time I look over at it I feel overwhelmed, at first by the task of getting in contact with all of these people and then later by guilt for not having done it. Eventually I just file it all away and ignore it.

    I would love to be able to turn even some of these contacts into relationships. Even just adding these folks to linked-in feels somehow presumptuous. Also, I am rather bad with names and often can’t match up cards with conversations. Do you have a system or set of rules for dealing with this?

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  • http://tsfoxden.webs.com/ Tycho

    An acquaintance of mine sent me the link to this blog entry, which is kind of funny because I’m ENFP. But reading, it’s interesting to note that these tips are, as people have said above, suited for just about anybody who’d like help in having a conversation.

    Not to be ironic, but I myself have trouble talking about something other than what -I’m- doing or what -I’m- interested in and excited about at the given moment. I -love- listening to other people and learning what they are up to and focused on and all about, but my sole method of doing that seems to be talking all over them about me, and waiting for them to connect to what I’m saying. Not the greatest method, I admit.

    These tips are a solid way to change that, I would think. Not by trying to be less of an extrovert or more introverted, but by changing the approach. Offer a line, a starting point, and go from there; save some of that first-contact energy for the follow-up. This is a clear guide to doing that, if not a complete one.

    Basic steps to learn for the relatively uninitiated. Thank you, Ms Chua!

  • http://petixe.com rachel

    Interesting post. I am not really good at conversations with strangers and I tend to listen more than talk. I am always afraid of touching topics that I am not interested in. The weakness/strength table is really a good example. I might do this one of these days.

    Thank you! Rachel

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Donald, welcome to the wonderful world of interacting on blogs!

    Wow, thanks, everyone, for all those great tips and insights.

    Rick, the one thing that’s made it easier for me to build relationships after brief contacts at conferences and other events is this blog. I put the URL on my business card, and many people check it out after meeting me. That makes it easy for them to get to know me further, discover other common interests, and stay in touch. And I don’t have to work up the nerve to try and figure out how often they want to hear from me, because they can control that! ;) So if there’s one thing that I can get you to do, it’s to blog. Here’s a long braindump of conference networking tips. Hope it helps!

    Rachel: I use questions to guide conversations towards things I’m interested in. =) Have fun learning!

    Tycho: I like playing a game with myself, trying to find the connection between two different concepts. So I might ask people questions about their interests, and then try to connect that with books I’ve read or things I’m interested in. It’s a good way to practice creativity, too. Try that, you might like it. =)

    Mike: Energy and clarity (and confidence, and a host of other good things) come with practice. Blogging–thinking out loud–helps me figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it. I wasn’t born a writer–heck, I got Ds in my university merit English classes because I got bored with the essays! If you find things you’re interested in, and you start writing and thinking and talking about them, you’ll find them easier and easier to write and think and talk about. It’s kinda funny that way.

    Donald: Many people feel intimidated by the idea of sharing personal thoughts on a blog. You don’t have to write at a very personal level. If you help someone by answering a question or sharing a useful link, copy that onto your blog so that you can help strangers who can then come across it using a search engine. Write about what you learn from people and from life, and you’ll learn even more in the process. You’ll get even more value out of the time you invested in helping and learning, and you’ll be surprised by the people you help along the way.

    Xianhang Zhang: That could be because I don’t really worry about meeting girls. <laugh> Try picking up new hobbies.

    Jason: Great points! I’ve got to figure out how to help people learn more about discovering and expressing passion and happiness… =D

  • http://www.seutje.be seutje

    hmm, most interesting read,
    we’ll see if I can put this intro practise :)

    but what if you find it hard to start a conversation with a total stranger AND you can manage to write a decent blog without going horribly off-topic after 3 lines?

    See, I have this tendency to make my sentences rly compact and space out the text way too much, and personally… I wouldn’t read my own blog :x

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Sure! You’d be surprised at how people will check out your blog, even just briefly, after you meet them and give them your business card. Or after they get an e-mail from you with the URL in the signature. And you’ll be surprised at how many people will go on to keep reading (particularly if you offer e-mail subscription for those not yet set up with feed readers), and who will then resume the conversation at some point through e-mail or a comment… =)

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Pete Forde shares this great link: Caring for your introvert

  • http://clair.craftyneko.com Clair

    Thanks for sharing this awesome presentation :) I am sure a lot of people in the office could relate with this. :)

  • http://www.alisonk.com Alison

    Thanks for this. I struggle with talking to people I don’t know, and it’s nice to get some advice that doesn’t involve either trying to make myself into someone I’m not or taking psychiatric meds.

  • http://[email protected] Thotjotter

    Great and insightful presentation! After trying to be that “fake extrovert” at networking fairs in bschool for over a year, I had realized that I hated the “Small talk” and the awkward silences, and even more, the feeling that I was supposed to talk to people with the sole purpose of “using” them somehow. It was emotionally exhausting to try to talk about things neither I nor the other person really cared about, to fake interest where there was really none, to be thinking all the while how this person can be useful to me, instead of how I can be of use to this person.

    I often wondered why with some people I could converse for hours with little or no effort, and with some, I was exhausted after a 10 min conversation!

    On a side note, I went through your “About” and was fascinated — almost every bullet point, I could have written about myself — with the exception of your current work. I am a B-school student, ex-software engineer fascinated by education and how technology can make it fun.

    Keep blogging!

  • http://www.asmarterplanet.com George Faulkner, IBM

    You are brilliant.

  • http://the-nerds.org rjnerd

    Interesting – Yet another person that did a lot of nodding as I read this – I have real problems approaching and starting a conversation, but once started, I have no problem continuing. It helps that I have been around long enough to have some interesting stories, and truly odd hobbies to share.

    At the high school dance I was always one of the kids hiding in the shadows, afraid to approach anyone. I noticed myself with the same sort of reservations at a recent networking event. I have no problem walking up to someone with a booth at that sort of event, and have done my share of booth duty, without issue. Somehow I also manage to be shy, yet without stage fright, like you I can stand up in front of hordes of strangers, but would have trouble introducing myself to any of the folks at the social hour that preceeded the talk.

    Thanks for putting this in print.

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  • http://whatglows.blogspot.com/ Julia

    Thank you for this wonderful post. It’s all such good advice. I have been trying to tell myself that its okay to by shy for years now, but sometimes its hard to know how to also be successful.

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  • http://gography.blogspot.com Grace

    Galeng Sacha for coining this term and creating a wicked presentation. I have been an Introvert in a sea of Extroverts who are always on me about trying to “sell myself” more. It just didn’t feel natural. But having you capture these in words helps out so much. These lines: “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.” gave me a lot to think about. I’m in recruitment so by force of habit I always ask “What do you do?”. Totally shifts my perspective and I love it!

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    <grin> It’s amazing how much easier connecting gets when you worry less about selling yourself or about personal branding and you focus more on creating value. That’s a good way to build relationships and share knowledge, too

    If you’re in recruitment, you’d definitely find their answers to “What are you passionate about?” “What kind of work would you love to do?” to be much more interesting than “What do you do?”. =) People often take a little prodding to come up with real answers–far too few people think about things like that!–but it’s good for them and good for you.

  • http://blog.vortorus.net/ Edward Middleton

    Sacha, I love the slides. I guess I would have to say I don’t think being introverted is a handicap, most of the really compelling passionate people I know are. It just takes some of us time to realize this :)

  • Gwen

    Thanks for being transparent and sharing these tips. I’m definitely the introvert, preferring staying at home over going to a party. I’m good at the listening, but I know I need to work on the stepping out and questioning as well as deciding what I have to offer to other people. This is my first time to read your blog. I got here through the Free Technology for Teachers website and I’m glad I stumbled this way. Keep up the great work!

  • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

    Gwen: Thanks for dropping by! I’m like that too. Fortunately, you can invest your non-party time into doing things that help you connect with people, such as writing blog posts or comments… =)

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