Many professional organizations, common interest groups, companies and colleges run events clearly marketed as opportunities for networking. Scan your local newspaper or business journal, LinkedIn groups or Meetup.com to find them. Or simply run this Google search: "'networking event' AND '[insert your city]'" and tweak it to fit your needs.
Some people feel like a fish out of water in a room filled with strangers. If you are like this, just remember that all those other people are there because they are just like you: they want to meet new people and build new relationships. You might know something that they would value. You might be the answer to another networker's needs.
Here are six key tips for working a room full of other networkers:
1. Be your real self. Of course you've created your perfect branding statement and elevator pitch. You have it down pat, ready to recite at a moment's notice. And you're anxious to share it with anyone who will listen. But be careful not to launch into a nonstop monologue lest you come off sounding either robotic or like an MP3 player without a pause button.
Stay in the moment and observe carefully what kind of reception you're getting. Pay attention to the eyes and body language of the person with whom you are speaking. Does the person you are with want to break in and ask a question or respond? Be prepared to share your story, but also be nimble enough to abbreviate or adapt it to suit the circumstance.
2. Be subtle. Most people like to help others. At the same time, you are quite likely to turn people off if you come off as a nonstop commercial touting yourself. Blatant self-promotion makes the networking experience all about selling you, like a TV infomercial, rather than all about building a personal relationship with another person.
3. Be attentive. Networking is about active listening to learn about other people. Ask about how they got to where they are today, their accomplishments, current situation, challenges and needs. When you pose these kinds of questions, you will likely get strong cues about how you can best relate to your new acquaintance. You will learn what knowledge or experiences you can share that would be appreciated, what connections you can help establish, and how you can be a valuable networking partner. When you make the effort to assist someone else, they will be much more motivated to hear about you and how they can be of assistance.
4. Be focused and brief. When you are at an event, focus intently on the person with whom you are speaking rather than letting your eyes wander the room to see other potential targets. At the same time, recognize that networking situations are generally not the right venue for extended conversations. When there is a natural break, make sure to exchange cards and ask when it might be convenient to follow up or go into greater detail. Then go on to the next person. And of course, do follow up.
5. Be positive. Networking events are not for venting. No matter how jaded or jilted you might feel about a past employer, boss or co-worker, keep your negative thoughts to yourself. Every time you denigrate someone else, you cause your listener to wonder if you did something to bring your woes upon yourself. It is easy to become viewed as someone unable to shake the past, rather than as someone who is potentially a valuable asset for the future. Don't take time away from establishing a healthy relationship with a new person by burdening them with negativity.
6. Be well mannered. Don't monopolize the conversation. Don't text or check your phone for email when you should be interacting with others or listening to an event speaker. Be respectful of other people's precious networking time. Recognize that they too want to work the room. Don't let yourself become perceived as a desperate hanger on who can't be brushed off easily.
You can use networking events for multiple purposes: to gain information about what's going on in your field or industry, to catch up with fellow alumni, to gain new acquaintances and to move your job hunt forward. Rather than being afraid of participating in networking events, it is well worth your time to make them a part of your regular routine. If you attend with a positive, pay it forward attitude, you will surely be viewed as the admirable professional that you are, and you will earn the respect and trust of others.
Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.