It's not so easy to master the art of juggling a plate and drink in one hand while gracefully delivering an on-target elevator pitch. And for introverted job-seekers who prefer one-on-one meetings or small group interactions, the idea of needing to "work a room" to meet an influential new contact may seem overwhelming.
But succeeding at in-person networking is not out of reach. Follow these 10 steps to ease awkwardness and emerge with terrific contacts:
1. Become a sleuth. Before attending in-person events, find out who else plans to attend. This is easier than ever if you received an online invitation.
Heading to a backyard barbecue? There's bound to be an e-invitation listing the guests and their RSVPs. Attending a professional event? Organizers likely used a social application to record responses and make them available to invitees. Many event organizers post their plans via LinkedIn's "Events" application. (Access it through LinkedIn's "More" tab, then navigate to "Applications" to add it to your profile.) Colleagues and potential mentors may have listed themselves as attending, which provides easy access to click through their profiles to learn about their backgrounds and interests.
2. Research several targets. It's not stalking; many make a habit of Googling people they expect to meet before an in-person encounter. It's commonplace to review LinkedIn profiles, Twitter streams, and even Facebook pages owned by potential networking contacts. Focus first on professional information: Learn where people attended school, where they worked, and spend time reviewing their professional bios, or LinkedIn summaries. Make sure you have a complete LinkedIn profile in case anyone is researching you.
Look for some common personal touch points. Are there any common connections? Do they belong to public, online group-focused hobbies you enjoy? Make a note of any potential talking points.
3. Search for recent press. Have their organizations been in the news? What about the contacts themselves? Have they recently been quoted in a professional journal or online newsletter? Most people are flattered when new colleagues mention a quote or comment of theirs that received positive press. And doing so also makes it clear a job-seeker is on top of industry news, which never hurts.
4. Make a list of several conversation starters. If it's uncomfortable meeting new people, advance research and planning will come in very handy at the moment a great contact extends a handshake. Maybe the person enjoys skydiving and you do too. Work the topic into the conversation. It's not necessary to say, "In researching your background, I noticed you enjoy jumping from planes; so do I." Even in an age when it's easy to find out anything about other people, this might seem a bit aggressive. Instead, once niceties are exchanged, feel free to comment, "Wow…This weather is great for skydiving. I hope it lasts until the weekend." The new contact will likely pick up the topic and presto—a natural conversation ensues.
5. Practice. There's a reason "practice makes perfect." If conversing with strangers is uncomfortable, spend some time role-playing with friends, a pet, or in front of a mirror. Make a list of things to say. It helps to prepare to discuss topics with buzz. See the latest movies, read some in-demand books, and watch or read the news before the event.
6. Don't ask for help. It may seem counter-intuitive, but you should avoid asking for help when meeting people for the first time. Do not wear a metaphorical "J" for job-seeker on your chest by highlighting your job-search needs. Make a point to have an engaging, upbeat conversation about non-work topics that leads to a more formal follow-up meeting.
7. Be a good listener. Ask plenty of questions. Most enjoy talking about themselves. Be the person who wants to know more about new contacts. Nod, smile, and do everything possible to leave a favorable impression. A good conversation where the other person feels valued and heard is likely to lead to another meeting.
8. Request a meeting. It's so much easier to have a professional conversation in a quiet, one-on-one setting where people are not hovering around, waiting to talk to your contact. After a great introduction and casual conversation, ask for another meeting and arrange an informational interview. If the interaction is lively and pleasant, most people will at least agree to hear from you again.
9. Seek the best ways to reconnect. Some people monitor Twitter or LinkedIn religiously. Others prefer voice mail or emails. Ask about the best time to reach your new friends and contacts. Avoid frustration: Use the preferred methods, even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone.
10. Follow up. It's a shame to research and plan to meet new people, have engaging conversations, and leave without contact information and plans to get in touch. Don't waste opportunities to make the most of in-person meetings. If the contact agreed to meet at a later date, make a point to immediately firm up a meeting time.
Miriam Salpeter is a job search and social media consultant, career coach, author, speaker, resume writer, and owner of Keppie Careers. She is author of Social Networking for Career Success. Miriam teaches job seekers and entrepreneurs how to incorporate social media tools along with traditional strategies to empower their success.