Relax: you're in the same boat as a lot of other nervous job seekers. With a few tips, you'll be ready to start swapping business cards and building relationships to help you find your next position.
But first, a word about networking. Many job seekers think that going to one event will score them an interview at a great company. That's not how it works. Networking is about building relationships, and it takes a while. So start before you're really ready to quit, if possible, so that you have time enough to develop relationships with the people you meet, then move on to getting invited for a job interview.
Rather than thinking "how can this person help me" when you meet someone new, consider how you can help that person. It might be as simple as referring her to a salon you like. And while this little favor might seem insignificant, your new contact will remember you helping her, and want to do the same for you down the road.
Finding networking opportunities. Start by finding local groups that cater to people in your industry or the one you want to work in. If, for example, you work in public relations, you may be able to find a local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America or other group that provides resources and networking opportunities for people in PR.
You don't need to attend a meeting every day, and it's better to pick one or two groups to check out rather than dozens. That helps you focus on these groups and get to know the people you meet.
Craft your elevator speech. The first thing you'll be asked when you meet people at these events is "what do you do?" Be prepared with an answer. Come up with a few sentences that say:
You might want to practice your speech at home a few times so that it rolls off your tongue effortlessly.
Get your business cards ready. Always have a business card available for anyone who asks for one. If you have cards from your job and are comfortable using them, bring a stack. But if you don't want word getting back to your company that you're actively seeking employment, you might have cards created that include your personal email and phone number instead. Online printers like Moo make customized business cards simple.
And whenever you meet a new person, ask for her card as well. When you follow up after the event, it makes it easy to get in touch with her.
Keep your eyes peeled and ears open. You might not hear about a job opportunity day one in networking, but if you pay attention and make your intentions of finding a job known, opportunities will find you. As you build your relationships, you can ask your contacts if they know of open positions at their company. Once you're comfortable enough with the relationship, you can ask for a referral or recommendation for where you might find your next opportunity. Never take advantage of a contact; always make sure your relationship is at the point where asking for that big favor is appropriate.
Invite the people you meet and have started forging trust with out to coffee or lunch after a few months. Ask for advice if they're senior to you. Remember to keep providing value on your end too; no one likes a lopsided professional relationship.
Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs.com, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.