5 Everyday Networking Opportunities a Job-Seeker Can't Miss

Take advantage of informal occasions for making new contacts.

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You've probably heard that you need to attend your office's holiday party. You'll be treated to free food, good music (hopefully), and a once-a-year opportunity to network with folks within your company whom you rarely never see.

But there are other events that come around regularly; informal situations that are ideal for networking. Grab a fresh stack of business cards, perfect your elevator speech, and keep your eyes and ears peeled during these five everyday situations:

1. Sporting Events. Sporting events and networking go hand in hand, ever since people began negotiating on the golf course. "We tell our M.B.A. students that if you're going to go into corporate America and you don't know how to play golf, then you should probably learn," says Cynthia Kay Stevens, an associate professor at University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "It's the natural thing for you to have in common with a business associate." Other sporting events—whether you're a spectator or participant—also make for great opportunities to meet and greet. And the commonality of enjoying ski trips or cheering on your children at a weekly soccer game will give you an easy intro into a conversation.

Since it's natural for new acquaintances to discuss what they do career-wise, you'll have to plan carefully what you'll say and how you'll say it. Karen James Chopra, a licensed professional counselor with a specialization in careers, suggests memorizing a target statement about yourself for networking on the fly. "If you just say 'I'm currently unemployed,' that's going to be a conversation killer," she says. "Try something like, 'I'm currently unemployed, but what I'm looking to do next is X, Y, and Z,' so that the conversation can keep going. [Your target statement] doesn't have to be a full elevator speech, but it should be prepared like one."

Networking Dos and Don'ts for Sporting Events

Don't miss your kid scoring the winning goal on account of your schmoozing.

Do nurture a new friendship by talking sports and careers.

2. Charity Events. Like sporting events, charity functions are occasions when people gather with a common interest. In other words, you should be able to find a simple entrée into a conversation with a stranger—your mutual interest in autism research, for instance. But if you're having trouble, Stevens offers advice that she recalls hearing recently from a networking expert. "She suggested that you strategically place yourself near the food or drinks table, because that's where the most people congregate," Stevens says. "Then rely on a couple of generic questions you can ask to the people who approach the table. Things like asking about the parking, the traffic, the food, even distributing a compliment—these are small things that provide an opening."

"Try to connect with people on a personal level first," adds Hallie Crawford, a certified career coach and founder of the Atlanta-based company Create Your Own Career Path. "Because that's going to make for a deeper, meaningful relationship sometimes. Consider starting conversations by talking about a recent movie you've seen, or a recent vacation you've enjoyed."

Networking Dos and Don'ts for Charity Events

Don't harass guests while they're trying to make a silent auction bid.

Do stand near the food and drink table so you can meet the passersby.

3. Weddings. Waiting for the processional to begin. Standing in the receiving line. Milling about the cocktail hour. Weddings are rife with networking opportunities. And one perk to meeting business contacts this way is that you'll be wearing your Sunday best, which usually makes for a good first impression. "I've told women to make sure their business cards are in their evening bags," says Chopra when asked about meeting new people during formal events. "Then while sitting at the reception, be sure to ask your table mates what they do," she adds.

Just make sure to maintain a level of professional decorum if you think there's the potential for networking. Even though a wedding is a party, you still want to "maintain your professional composure," says Crawford. "Smile, be warm, be enthusiastic, and have a positive attitude. Behave as you would at a workplace, and talk to [the people you meet] in a professional way."