5 tips for turning any event into a networking opportunity

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By Kyle Cleaver, CareerBuilder Writer

Life is full of chances to network. There are formal events: Luncheons, happy hours and dinners purposely designed for networking. And then there are more casual opportunities: After work get-togethers with co-workers or parties full of people you’ve never met.

But, even if the event has a more casual feel, you should never look at a social gathering (whether personal or professional) as “just another get-together with the guys.” If you do, you are missing out on tremendous opportunities. Take the same approach to these functions as you would a career fair. Find out who is on the attendee list. With a little persuasion, you might even get the person in charge of organizing the event to email you the list. This will allow you to use your time effectively at the event.

A note to always remember: Don’t waste your time connecting with people who are there for the same purpose you are.Your goal is to find those at the managerial level or higher. Those are the decision makers, and those are the ones you want to start a relationship with. How do you accomplish this task? Take a look at a few pointers that will help:

1. Start off right. When you find the attendees who are managers or higher, the way you begin your conversation is crucial. After introducing yourself, start by asking questions about them. If you have performed a thorough search on their company, include that information in your questions. This will establish a stronger connection and credibility. You goal is to get them talking as much as possible. The more they talk, the more comfortable they feel around you. However, the more you talk about yourself, the less they will be engaged and interested in the conversation.

2. Connect as quickly as possible. In these types of settings, your goal is to build a solid connection in a short period of time. Smile, keep good eye contact, and focus on what they are saying. As you listen, make mental notes, as you might want to refer to something they said later when you reach out to them. Also, don’t make your entire conversation revolve around business. Remember, managers, executives and even CEO’s have live outside of work too, just like you. Make the switch from business to their family and interests as soon as possible. Why is this important? Let’s face it. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves? Soon, you will feel them warming up to you because they have done most of the talking, and you have activated one of the best ways to build trust in a relationship — you listened!

Now, it’s time to transition.

3. Mention your desire
At the right moment, begin to talk about the fact that you are looking for a career change. If you have done your job well, they will probably say something like, “What type of work do you do?” When you answer, they might say, “I may be able to help you with that, here is my business card.” Or “Give me a call sometime, and I will see who I can connect you with.” Mission accomplished.

I realize these ideas and patterns go against the grain a little bit, but sharing everything about yourself right off the bat usually bores the person you are talking to. Most executives never have the opportunity for someone to just listen to them, so when you perform that small task well; they will begin to open up. Also, remember that the person you are conversing with may not be the one who does the hiring and will only be connecting you to the right individual. If this is the case, they really don’t need to know everything about you anyway. Listen first, then speak of yourself second.

4. Know your mission
In networking events, you goal is not to land a job — your mission is to build a relationship and build it as quickly as possible. You accomplish this by getting to know the people whom you have targeted to speak with. At the end of the conversation, they should feel comfortable enough to want to help you. If they do or if they don’t, always ask for their business card. Use that card to write down a few facts and reference them in your follow-up email or call. If one of their kids is in baseball, you will want to ask how the season is going in your follow-up. I can tell you from years of experience that if you let someone talk about their children—and you listen—your chances of them responding to you are incredibly higher than those who only asked for a connection. If you didn’t get any pertinent information about them, you can always search on a social or professional networking site and connect with them again there.

Listening is the key.

5. See the big picture
No matter who you meet that could possibly be vital at any part of your career, continue to touch base with them. You are only as strong as your network. The old phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” really does hold true more often than not. So, as you network, you might meet influential people who really can’t help you today; but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to help you tomorrow. With that being said, don’t be selfish either. When you follow-up with people, always ask them what you can do to help them. It’s true, the more you serve other people to help them accomplish what they need, the more people will help you get to where you need to go. It goes back to the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I have seen people build extensive networks of influential people by following these simple rules. Needless to say, they are in influential roles themselves. At the end of the day, to be successful with this concept, you have to truly care about people. If you are only in it for yourself, then networking isn’t for you. Today, more than ever, people see straight through fluff and right into your motives. If your intentions are wrong, networking will harm you much more than help you. Focus on how you can help others and the doors of opportunity will begin to open for you.

For more on networking, see:

 How helping others can help your job search

Oprah and Bill Gates have mentors. Do you?

How to capitalize on your holiday networking

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