Contrary to popular belief, introverts are not necessarily shy or socially awkward. Instead, we recharge by spending time alone and can find chaotic environments and small talk (at least in large doses) draining. The idea of networking, which often involves many casual conversations with near strangers, makes many of us wince.
But networking with other writers and prospective clients is necessary to break out of the Fiverr/Upwork/Craigslist freelance scene into a more sustainable (and less exploitative) career.
When I first set my heart on freelancing full-time, networking overwhelmed me. But I jumped in because I loved the flexibility and variety freelancing offered. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way to make networking a manageable and rewarding part of my week.
Start with a new mindset
Introverts often prefer deep, purposeful conversations over small talk. This is part of why networking intimidated me. Approaching people under the guise of a conversation to ask for work felt inauthentic. Reframing networking in terms of marketing and not selling helped me feel comfortable about reaching out.
In This is Marketing, Seth Godin writes:
“Your job as a marketer is to find a spot on the map with edges that (some) people want to find. Not a selfish, unique selling proposition, done to maximize your market share, but a generous beacon, a signal flare sent up so that people who are looking for you can easily find you.” (p.46)
Marketing your services is simply sending up the signal flare to let people know you are available. Truly independent freelancers can be difficult to find, but we offer invaluable experience for our customers. We make their lives easier by marketing our services, not waiting for them to find us.
I say this confidently because many people I’ve connected with over email or LinkedIn said something similar to me—your message caught me just when I needed it. You are doing prospective clients a favor by being easy for them to find.
Pacing is everything
One day I had three meetings with new contacts. I drove into the city to meet another freelancer at a lively coffee shop in the morning and then had two Zoom calls with prospective clients in the afternoon. Afterward, I was completely exhausted. I wanted to curl up in a ball with a book, but I had dinner to make and kids to wrangle.
Pacing networking makes it manageable. And to keep a steady flow of freelance work, networking needs to be more of a marathon and less of a sprint. Here are some rules for pacing to help maintain your networking practice:
#1 Limit networking to the workday
I’m terrible at following this rule, and when I break it, I pay the price by not being present with my family. Reading and replying to LinkedIn messages or work emails during the evening is draining. They can wait if they come in after your work hours have ended.
#2 Take your time to reply
You can’t simply walk away to grab a moment to yourself when you meet with someone over Zoom or brunch without your conversation partner questioning your sanity. But conversations over email or social media can handle some space. Setting the discussion aside and approaching it later with a fresh mind is more productive than shooting off an inauthentic reply.
#3 Plan to network daily
Schedule building your network into your workday. For example, reaching out to 25 new contacts a week sounds less exhausting when you break it down to five a morning.
#4 Schedule with self-care in mind
Give yourself a buffer between calls and meetings. It’s easy to say “yes” to the first available time a new connection proposes. But taking time to consider your calendar will help you avoid burnout.
Prepping for meetings
Networking doesn’t have to be surface-level small talk with a tentative pitch and a sweaty handshake at the end. Instead, planning can help the meeting be authentic and productive. Consider questions like what you have to offer them and what you want to take away from the meeting. Settling on a flexible itinerary can also give confidence.
Pre-meeting research can keep the meeting on track. Familiarizing yourself with your contact’s industry, company, and job description lets you ask intelligent and applicable questions. Finding bridges between your life and theirs can make the conversation easier and more memorable. Do you live in the same city? Do you share similar life experiences—like having kids or pets? Have you ever worked for the same company?
Networking can feel like a Herculean effort for introverts, but it is manageable with some strategy. And remember that once you have your client base established, you’ll have more time for writing in your comfy clothes with just your music or your dog to keep you company. An introvert’s ideal career.
Godin, Seth. This is Marketing. Portfolio/Penguin, 2018.