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Self-Promotion for Introverts: Creating Your Network

entrepreneurship nancy ancowitz networking Feb 09, 2010

by Nancy Ancowitz

photo by Antenna

Networking works best as a lifelong pursuit--especially for people who aren't naturally inclined to be self-promoters.

This story is real. Some details have been changed because … well, it’s a small world. “It was a bloodbath,' whispers a Chanel-clad HR executive whom we’ll call Ginger Parker. “They canned my boss and put my nemesis in charge of the department. I called in sick the next day and made a list of everyone I could possibly contact,' she says. “It was red-alert time. I had to get the hell out.'

Parker, who is an introvert, shares how she got into gear: “I brainstormed names of everyone I could think of—friends, family, former bosses, clients, colleagues, people from elevators, shoe stores, Jacuzzis, and bat mitzvahs.' She reflects: “Thankfully, over the years, I had always been generous about connecting people, sharing information, leads, staying in touch, and offering my talents as a problem solver.

“I didn’t realize how many people would be happy to help me,' Parker continues. “The outpouring of support was phenomenal and landed me my next job within a few months in an unexpected way. An acquaintance I had met bungee jumping in New Zealand a year earlier offered to introduce me to a colleague. The acquaintance was a bond trader. I was a senior human resources manager— different worlds—but within a few weeks, I got a sizzling hot offer at a competitor, and packed my bags and never looked back.'

Parker’s story demonstrates the value of networking, which we’ll define as building business relationships for mutual benefit. Networking works best as a lifelong pursuit rather than as self-promotion CPR when you need a job or want to power up your business during down times. “I treasure that I have a lot of people in my network and that I can help make connections,' says Gary Osland, account director at mNovakDesign. “No matter what my colleagues are looking for—whether it’s a good speech writer, chiropractor, or a locksmith—they come to me. I value that they put trust in my recommendations.' He adds: “And the goodwill usually comes back to me.'

As an introvert, you’d probably rather listen than talk most of the time. You’re adept at building deep and lasting relationships. You’re trusted, accountable, and a core contributor. People look to you for your expertise. However, you’re not a schmoozer. You value your space and quiet time. Regardless, you have distinct advantages that enable you to create a strong network that can provide you with continuous support.

Why network? A CareerXroads study of name-brand firms’ use of networking found that the number one external source of new hires was referrals (28 percent), while the second largest source was online job boards (26 percent). So from the standpoint of hiring organizations, word of mouth is the best way to find you. Likewise, if you’re an independent consultant or business owner, your network—including the clients and colleagues who sing your praises—is probably what pays your bills. So how are prospective clients and employers going to find you unless you tell people in your network that you’re for hire?

In this chapter we’ll talk about how you can apply your existing gifts and resources to strengthening your professional network. However, before you make your first phone call, identify what you can offer, who will be interested, what’s in it for the other party, and what you want from your network. We’ll cover getting recognition for your expertise; intercultural aspects of self-promotion; the ways you spend your networking time; and your sphere of influence—that is, who you know; how to ask for help; how to have informational interviews, which can help you expand and deepen your network; and how to break the ice in social situations. We’ll also discuss your elevator pitch, or the all-important answer to: “So tell me about yourself'; how to handle business cards; and how to present yourself with confidence. All you need to get started is a computer, a phone, and a smile. Ready?

Position Yourself as a Valued Expert

Shoya Zichy, author (with Ann Bidou) of Career Match, offers you advice that will help you raise your visibility: “Join organizations, volunteer your time, and take on special initiatives within your company.' She adds: “Find projects in which you can work with people from other departments, and be generous with your expertise. Also, write for company and industry publications whenever possible.' Zichy emphasizes the benefit of this approach for introverts: “Rather than being known for your charm, you become known as an expert providing a valuable service.'

Zichy gives the example of the former CEO of a Fortune 500 company she knows who is deeply introverted. Her contact was aware that he needed additional visibility, but he just wasn’t the type to schmooze in clubs in the Hamptons. Instead, as an art expert, he joined the board of a major museum. “That’s a big reason why all these people serve on volunteer boards,' says Zichy. “It’s often because of who will be sitting next to them.' Volunteering on a board will allow you to interact regularly, possibly over the course of a year or more, with others who share a common interest with you. This will give you ample opportunities to form deep, lasting relationships with a select few of your fellow volunteer board members. Perfect for an introvert.

You can reframe self-promotion as a more palatable activity by approaching it as a way of connecting and sharing with people you would enjoy knowing. One of my clients went out of his way to help three of his colleagues this week. He didn’t ask for anything in exchange—and he didn’t need to. A gifted but unassuming introvert, my client helped his colleagues because he enjoys connecting talented people with attractive opportunities. The generosity usually comes back to him, often in spades, and often when he’s least expecting it. He doesn’t push or pressure anyone. Of course, not everyone subscribes to the spirit of sharing. However, my client surrounds himself with people who understand the value of relationships and who look out for their colleagues over time.

So you’re a lawyer who addresses the needs of someone who has been wronged and is entitled to justice. You’re a technical writer who can translate complex concepts into plain English. Conveying these gifts is not just self-promotion—it’s letting others know that you have what they need. Kathleen Waldron, Ph.D., president of Baruch College, suggests a forum to help you spread the word: “You could cohost a lunch,' she says. “You bring people together, and they can have an interesting conversation. You show your leadership that way, and it doesn’t demand that you’re the public speaker or that you put yourself out there, which you may not be comfortable doing if you’re really introverted.'

Don't Take Anything Personally

Of course, some people will respond to your efforts to connect and others won’t. “Don’t take things personally,' says Max Victor Alper, Ph.D., a fine art photographer who exhibits widely throughout the United States and Europe. I’ve heard this advice before, and it’s easier said than done. Here’s Alper’s approach: “As an artist, I have developed a dual consciousness—one that is aesthetic/spiritual, and the other in tune with the real/material world. This awareness protects me from the negativity of other people. When creating, an artist exists in a zone of beauty and truth that is akin to a spiritual experience. The creative process is exhilarating, while real life frequently seems diminished.' He concludes with a reflection that’s at once grounded and expansive: “So I feel like a religious zealot who will not permit other people’s criticism to destroy my faith in this extraordinary realm of creativity.'

Let’s bring our attention back to the real/material world. My general rule when it comes to networking is this: Three tries and I’m out. If you’re a prospective client and you show interest in hearing from me, it’s our mutual loss if you don’t respond to my phone messages and e-mails. You don’t get the benefit of what I have to offer, and I don’t get the benefit of working with you. Will I let it ruin my weekend when you don’t call me back? I doubt it. You may have gotten into a bubbly stew all of a sudden at work, you may have had to leave town, or you may just be a flake. I don’t care. My time is valuable too. Besides, I have to get back to my own beauty and truth!

So what can we take away from all of this? When you invest your time and energy to connect with someone and you don’t hear back after persisting several times, free yourself up to pursue other opportunities. It beats getting sucked into the vortex of self-doubt that many of us introverts are prone to. While it’s important to be aware of how you approach others, it can be self-defeating to second-guess yourself and ascribe your contacts’ unresponsiveness to something you did wrong.

Intercultural Aspects of Self-Promotion

I met Shakti Gattegno at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she was conducting a workshop for language teachers that I attended. At a later point, I mentioned this book to her, and we discussed the idea of including a section on the intercultural aspects of self-promotion. I told her that the topic was so big that I was concerned I couldn’t do it justice in just a few paragraphs. Gattegno, who was born in India and has lived in England, Switzerland, and the United States, responded by sharing with me a rhetorical question she had heard as a child: “How is it that the sun is so big, and yet a small umbrella can cover it?' She added that the topic of intercultural self-promotion was indeed profound and big, yet we could begin to cover it. And those who want to can seek out a lot more. So here goes.

Some of my clients from around the world find it distasteful—if not repugnant—to talk about their accomplishments. While plenty of my U.S.-born clients are just as reluctant to promote themselves, those from other countries and cultures face other layers of challenges. Many of my international clients didn’t grow up having to constantly promote themselves. They already navigate multiple intercultural and language issues in the United States on a daily basis, and so adding self-promotion to the mix can seem daunting—especially for introverts.

Gattegno says that when she is communicating with people from other cultures, she finds it most important to be mindful of their humanness. She emphasizes the importance of transcending while not rejecting one’s own culture and appreciating the cultures of others. Adds Vincent Suppa, head of The Middle Way One World Company®: “How do we preserve the humility that’s part of our cultural heritage and still promote our accomplishments?' He answers: “By making self-promotion less about you and more about the people you serve.'

“When I promote myself,' Suppa says, “it’s ultimately about promoting my customers, my vendors, and everyone else who makes our sustainable venture succeed every day.' Middle Way helps indigenous farmers in Asia sell their plant extracts to U.S.-based companies committed to sustainable development, such as Aveda. He continues: “So if you helped save a company from bankruptcy, tell the story of working families that depended on their jobs, the customers they served, and how much it meant to all of you that your company became solvent. Audiences have a tremendous capacity to hear what is not directly thrown in their face.' He adds: “Follow this advice and both your self-promotion and humanity will remain intact.'

Simi Sanni Nwogugu, CEO of HOD Consulting, Inc., a diversity consulting organization, offers the following advice to culturally diverse introverts inside organizations: “Take time to study the environment and carefully select one person, or a few people, you admire most—preferably in senior management. Seek them out and cultivate strategic one-on-one mentoring relationships with them.' Nwogugu, who divides her time between New York and her native city of Lagos, Nigeria, makes a good point: “Make sure you contribute to their learning as much as you want them to contribute to yours. Tell them the things you’re working on that excite you. Your positive energy will energize them, and when an opportunity comes up for a promotion or a special project requiring the specific skills and competencies you’ve communicated your passion around, they will tell you about it first.' She adds: “In everything, be authentic—know yourself and what you want. Don’t measure yourself by someone else’s yardstick.'

Intercultural Tips

While it’s impossible to address the full range of challenges that people from each country and culture face when they promote themselves in the United States, I’ve compiled a list of tips to get you started. Even if you grew up in the United States, you may find that your work environment has its own distinct culture that feels like a different planet. In fact, the corporate world, with its hierarchies and unwritten and sometimes intransigent rules, can seem that way to many. So you may glean some useful insights, regardless of where you’re from.

  • Take credit when it’s due to you. Although this may be one of the most challenging aspects of promoting yourself as an introvert, attach your name to your ideas, contributions, and accomplishments. Take ownership of them at meetings, get on the agenda to enhance your visibility, and include your name on whatever you write.
  • Just state the facts when you talk about your accomplishments. Use your introvert’s inclination to think deeply about how you want to position yourself. The more concrete the details and data and the fewer the adjectives, the better. For example: “My product development efforts have contributed to a 25 percent increase in revenues this year.' Practice saying it.
  • Ask colleagues, managers, clients, and other people you know to introduce you to people you want to meet and to refer business to you. This is one of the best ways for an introvert to expand her network, increase her clout, and gain more access. The introductions can be in person, but they can also be by phone or e-mail.
  • Create and practice an elevator pitch out loud. The concept of having a few crisp sentences already crafted to present yourself and what you do may be new to you. See the section titled “So Tell Me about Yourself' later in this chapter to learn more.
  • Tell a story. People remember stories. They’re an excellent way to find common ground across cultures. “I’ve made presentations all over the United States, but more importantly in Europe and Asia,' says Doug Fidoten, president of Dentsu America, Inc., a full-service advertising and marketing-communications company. “I’ve done presentations that were simultaneously translated into Chinese and Japanese, with people from Europe in the same audience. Even though we’re in the business world and our presentations have to be concise, when I get up and address a group, I need to tell a story.'
  • Use self-deprecating humor. “Laughing at oneself doesn’t offend anyone, is culturally safe, and is central to making you more accessible,' says Vincent Suppa. Be particularly mindful that any self-deprecating humor you use is also self-respecting. While it’s fine to laugh at yourself in a gentle and charming manner, you risk losing your audience’s respect if you put yourself down harshly. “If humor is at the heart of a memorable presentation, self-deprecating humor is the humanity behind the humor,' Suppa adds.


Nancy Ancowitz

is the author of Self-Promotion for Introverts®: The Quiet Guide to Getting Ahead (McGraw-Hill) and a business communication coach specializing in career advancement and presentation skills. For more information, go to her website


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