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Networking – It’s kind of like a junior high dance

June 25, 2009

A few weeks ago I attended a professional conference for career services practitioners.  It was an outstanding opportunity to learn more about the trends of the industry.  Additionally, it was a chance to do some networking.  As I was meeting my fellow conference attendees I started thinking – networking is more challenging than one would think.  Talking to people isn’t hard; it’s figuring out who to talk to that’s the problem.  Networking takes me back to the days of junior high dances.  It’s not the dancing that creates a problem; it is finding someone to dance with that makes things tricky.

Networking doesn’t typically involve disco balls and strobe lights, however in networking and junior high dances alike being bold enough to step out of your comfort zone is crucial.  Let’s take a professional conference as an example.  The normal reaction when entering a room full of people is to look for a familiar face.  If there is one, all is well.  But if no one looks familiar, it is easy to turn into a shy 13-year-old without a dance partner.  What can be done to improve this situation?  There are two options:  You can stand in the corner being anti-social or go out on a limb and talk with someone.  If only there was some way to improve networking skills and prepare for future opportunities to make talking with strangers less intimidating.

This is where the art of networking comes in.  While some networking happens spontaneously, I like to approach formal networking situations such as conferences or meet-and-greets with a game plan.  The first step is to ensure any opportunity to network is approached with a positive attitude.  Most importantly smile, make eye contact and exude confidence even when intimidated.  In junior high, if you didn’t look approachable, would someone ask you to dance?  Of course not!  The same rule applies here.

Up next – be ready for the always important introduction.  Be prepared to talk about yourself.  The prep work is as easy as asking yourself a couple brief questions:  Who are you? What are you all about?  Make your “elevator speech” memorable.  At a formal networking event, everyone is meeting new people.  Be someone with something original to say.  This is a great way to stand out!

Not only should you be ready with a stellar self-introduction; having the thoughtfulness to introduce others is important too.  For example, if you are talking with a new acquaintance and see another familiar face, draw that person into the conversation as well.  As an awkward teenager, having a friend to help with introductions was a lifesaver.  That same concept carries over into professional networking.  Now you are the connection between these contacts and additional perspective can be added to the conversation.

Once you have a person or two to talk with, what will you talk about?  The key to a great professional conversation is being in the loop about your profession and the world around you.  Have a few ideas in mind to get the conversation rolling.  Another important piece to being an excellent conversationalist is being a great listener.  Take the time to listen and think about what your new contacts are saying.  Ask follow-up questions to demonstrate your understanding and interest in the topic.

Finally, if you make a great connection and have an interesting conversation, ask for a business card.  This is the best way to follow-up.  Business cards ensure the opportunity to continue the conversation and keep up the contact.  During the business card exchange, jot down where you met this person and brief reminder of what was discussed.  Taking notes on the business cards of your new contacts will provide plenty of discussion topics for your follow-up emails.

With the proper preparations, professional networking does not have to be as awkward like a junior high dance.  Instead, head into all networking opportunities with confidence, an open mind, and plenty of enthusiasm.  Take the risk to introduce yourself – who knows you might meet!

Feel free to email me at keilers@onl.herzing.edu and check out Herzing University Online at http://www.herzingonline.edu/.

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