5 Ways to Succeed in a People-Oriented Job as an Introvert

An introvert in a people-oriented job

One way to succeed in a people-oriented job is to not expect the worst, like having to network 24/7. Instead, focus on your introvert strengths. 

You’ve been offered that dream job with great pay and decent hours, perfectly fitting your skill set. Maybe it’s as a librarian, bookseller, or something behind the scenes. But toward the end of the job description blares the phrase, as if pulsing in neon, “Excellent people skills required.”

You’re torn up inside, because while the job may be people-oriented, you’re not. You dread having to work a room, glad-handing everyone in sight. But, clearly, you need people to buy your product, fund your organization, embrace your vision. What to do?

I faced this decision when I was asked to become a major gift officer at Yale University. A gift officer solicits charitable donations for a nonprofit organization. My job would be to manage a portfolio of up to 200 donors, visiting the majority of them each year. That might entail up to five meetings a day, one week each month. It was a people-skills job if ever there were one.

You may think that sounds like a nightmare for an introvert… but I took the job, as extroverted as it seemed. And not only did I take it, but I excelled at it. Here are five ways I faced that position head-on and all it entailed. You can use them to conquer your own high-touch work environment.

5 Ways to Succeed in a People-Oriented Job as an Introvert 

1. Don’t fear the worst — instead, focus on your introvert strengths.

Introverts bring something special to people-oriented positions. The worst thing you can do for your confidence is imagine your new job is going to consist of only things you routinely avoid. For each week I spent on the road, I had three weeks in which I didn’t. During that time, I’d be in the office sending follow-up correspondence, scheduling the next trip, and learning what faculty and students were up to. That way, I could convey that enthusiasm to the alumni I was meeting on the road. So it was a fair ratio of down time to external time.

But if you imagine the worst — constant cocktail parties or 24/7 public speeches — you’ll scare yourself out of the job before you even begin. Even extroverts would acknowledge that in order to be successful at a high-touch job, plenty of thoughtful, intentional planning time is needed, and those are things that introverts can excel at. Take comfort knowing that even the most highly interactive positions have quiet time.

2. Role-play your schmoozing scenario.

Now, let’s talk about how to structure the interactive situations you’ll find on the job. They may be one-on-one meetings, events, or even cold-calls. Believe it or not, there are ways to ace the people-oriented aspects of your job, which I call schmoozing scenarios.

Did you know that 89 percent of advanced sales courses include role-plays? Role-plays accustom you to the kinds of experiences you’ll face in the real world. 

Why are they helpful for introverts in particular? We tend to shy away from scenarios that require us to think on our feet; as Matthew Pollard writes in The Introvert’s Edge, “Being spontaneous… is like pulling teeth.” Acting out the call-and-response of a business conversation reduces the need for an introvert to invent something on the spot.

Let’s imagine your job involves introductory phone outreach. (I know, I know, everyone emails or texts. But when that email goes unanswered, you’ll have to pick up the phone! Plus, you may be an introvert working at a call center — you never know!) 

So grab a friend or colleague. Explain your situation (e.g., “I’m calling donor x, who hasn’t responded to my email”) and begin with an easy scenario so that you can get comfortable with your pitch. Then, do a more challenging scenario. For instance, ask your partner to throw out an objection such as, “I’m pretty busy these days,” so that you can pilot different responses. (“What would be a better time to schedule something?”)

If you are role-playing a scenario where you have to make a pitch to a potential buyer, for instance, that opens the door to getting in-depth feedback. You can ask your counterpart, “What parts of my pitch were most interesting?” “Where did it start to drag?” “What could I have done to better engage you?”

If you can stomach it, record the conversation and listen to or watch it later. It sounds scary, but you’ll learn a lot about your body language and your style of speaking by watching yourself on video. (Or even by listening to yourself in a recording — and most cell phones have recording functions these days.)

When I started as a Yale gift officer, back in the dinosaur days of landlines, my stomach would be in knots about phoning people. I’d hope desperately that the secretary would answer, so I only had to leave a message! (You know how we introverts loathe the phone anyway!)

So what did I do? I mustered the gumption to ask a colleague with sales experience to help me practice. We went over specific details about how to handle introductory phone calls, such as whether to use the person’s first name or formal title. And I secured my first appointment. And then another. And many more. Maybe there was still always a bit of a knot in my stomach, but that’s okay. I had a system and it worked.

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3. Begin with the end in mind.

This is the second of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and it is perfect for introverts stepping into a schmoozing scenario. The key, as I’ve spoken about in a talk on reverse-engineering your schmooze, is to get really specific about what you want to achieve in a conversation. When you’re a door-to-door salesperson, your goal may be crystal clear, but when networking at a dinner party, things get blurry unless you plan ahead.

There’s a great deal of confusion over how to make small talk that actually goes somewhere, and introverts may feel like they’re being asked to pull a rabbit out of a hat. But it’s not magic. As a gift officer, my approach flowed from the definite goals I set. For instance: Ask Sonia for a gift of $15,000. Other times, the goal was to pave the way for a second conversation.

So break it down. Do you want to:

  • Ask for money? 
  • Sell someone your service? (Or a book at the bookseller job.) 
  • Request feedback on something, such as your website?
  • If you’re self-employed, find out if the person is willing to refer you to potential customers?

Before you even have your conversation, determine your specific goal, and keep it in mind all the way through your conversation.

4. Divide your meeting(s) into manageable parts.

Now that you’ve developed a specific goal, it’s time to break your scenario down into specific stages to get there. In fundraising, I think of three stages of a conversation: icebreaking, inquiring, and inspiring. Your own schmoozing scenario may have different components, but I’ll use mine as an example.

As the name implies, the icebreaking phase is where you establish rapport with a few questions or light comments. But what to say? Generate small talk topics beforehand — try to come up with three topics:

  • A fall-back topic (weather! traffic!)
  • A topic specific to who you’re meeting (art, restaurants, family)
  • A current event topic (so… how about those Knicks?)

When traveling to New York, for instance, I’ll be ready to chat about my Amtrak trip, the person’s kids, family, or job (depending on what I know about them), and the big event in the city (there’s always a game, visiting dignitary, or UN meeting). That will fill the awkward silences.

The inquiry stage is where you explore how your product, service, or idea may help them. This stage is where you get to ask questions and listen, which many introverts (myself included) love doing. But you’ll still want to generate a few questions beforehand. When I was on the road, I’d always get started by asking alumni who the dean was at the time they attended. Almost everyone remembered their dean. A more senior person at your company may be able to share great questions to get to know your constituents.

The inspiring stage is where you paint a picture of your product or service in a way that aligns with what you just learned about your counterpart’s interests and needs. This stage is where you engage the person in what it is you offer, and make the ask you planned out. Maybe it’s, “I’d love to set up a time to come back to you with a proposal. Would that be okay?” Or it could be, “Would you be willing to take a look at my website and offer your thoughts?”

5. Expect the unexpected — you can plan all you can, but not everything will go according to plan.

Expect the unexpected — and roll with whatever happens! (I know — we introverts don’t love the unexpected or change!) An old boss gave that advice before every meeting. Once internalized, it’s easier to deal with an unexpected response from the person across the table. When the restaurant is really loud, instead of panicking, tell yourself, “There it is — the unexpected,” and figure out whether to move tables or simply tune out the crowd. Because you can plan everything down to a t, but life might cross the i instead!

I spent nine years as a major gift-focused fundraiser. I brought a special way of relating to people, as a thoughtful introvert. Should you take on a job where “excellent people skills” are required, I know you’ll ace it, too.

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Dr. Kenna Barrett is a senior fundraiser and coach based in Silver Spring, MD. Over a 20-year period, Kenna has raised millions of dollars in all types of organizations, from start-ups to Ivy League universities. Kenna teaches fundraising at Sacred Heart University; she’s also taught at Johns Hopkins SAIS. She loves to work with self-identified introverts and others who seek a seasoned guide to help them navigate the world of philanthropy.