Whether you're mingling at a networking event for job seekers or attending an industry lecture followed by schmooze time, you're at a gathering that's hardwired for meeting people who can open doors for you. But you have to know how to work the room.
1. Tweak your attitude. View each networking event as a chance to expand whom you know and what you know. When you're positive and engaged, your whole posture changes, and you project an energetic vibe that people find appealing. They gravitate toward you.
One way to psych yourself up is to keep in mind that the best job opportunities often go unposted on job boards, so the more people you connect with, the greater your odds of hearing about an opening.
Plus, it's a two-way street: You can share tips on jobs that you know about but are not up your alley. Helping out a fellow job hunter simply feels good. At the very least, you can get on that person's radar for future possibilities, while increasing your network — the quintessential ingredient in landing a job.
Here are six ways to mix with a purpose.
2. Make room in your schedule. Don't race in, grab a drink and race out. Successful networking requires time and planning. If possible, review the RSVP list to see if you know anyone attending, or if there's someone you want to be sure to meet. Then do a quick review of his or her LinkedIn profile to gather background for questions.
Often the roster is available on the sponsoring group's website. If it's an open event, you might consider inviting a fellow job seeker or two. Going with someone you know takes the bite out of being in a room full of strangers and can put you in a more relaxed mood.
Make certain your online accounts at LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter tell the same story about you as your résumé does. Check that job titles and other personal information match and that you use the same name at each site. Also, take down any embarrassing photos or posts that are open for public viewing.
If you're in full job-hunting mode, rehearse your "elevator speech" of who you are, what you're doing right now and what kind of position you're seeking. If you're looking more to scope what's out there and expand your professional network for the future, you can simply use this time to learn more about people you're meeting.
People do judge a book by its cover, so dress appropriately for the event, and don't forget to polish those shoes, too. It's never wrong to dress professionally and wear something that makes you feel confident.
Carry business cards to dole out at the end of a conversation, provided it's to someone you truly want to connect with. If you're currently out of work, or don't want your employer to know you're trolling for a new position, create a simple business card that has just your name and contact information.
3. Set goals. Make a pact with yourself that at each gathering you'll meet three or four new people and get their contact information. Afterward, jot down notes on the back of their business cards to remind you of where you met and what you talked about. You'll need this to jog your memory if you follow up with them at a later time.
Having a strategy like this for your time keeps you fully engaged at the event — not simply meandering around the room ricocheting from person to person, or retreating to a corner table alone to nibble on appetizers and sip club soda.
See also: The perfect time for a brand new start
4. Arrive early. The best time for bantering is before the room gets crowded. This can be a little uncomfortable if you're shy, but with fewer people around, you have no choice but to stick out your hand and smile. Plus the low noise level in the room will be more conducive to conversation.
Look for someone standing alone, or sidle up to a small group of people and introduce yourself. Offer a brief but firm handshake while making eye contact, smiling and saying your first and last name. Then, listen vigilantly for the person's name.
5. Be curious and listen. Ask questions to get people to talk about themselves. It's subliminal, but this approach will build a positive memory of you, because who doesn't like talking about what they do? Spend at least twice as much time listening as you do talking.
If possible, be the one to toss out the first question. The person who answers will be more apt to relax and listen more carefully to what you have to say when it's your turn, since the ice has been broken, so to speak.
It helps to have your basic questions and comments committed to memory. Begin with the same kind of small talk that you might have at a purely social gathering. Comment casually on the food, perhaps, or an interesting article of clothing that someone is wearing. Then you can ask about what he or she does for a living, or background.
It's an old trick, but try to use the other person's name once or twice during your conversation. People like to hear their names and at the same time it will help you remember it.
6. Follow up. Send a note to your new connections the next day and tell them how much you appreciated meeting them and propose a future date to get together casually. Or mention a book, an upcoming event or even a movie they might enjoy — based on what you learned in your conversation. Email works fine for this, but if you've got a personal note card to send, that never goes out of fashion.
You might also consider following the people on Twitter, if they have accounts, and sending invitations to connect on LinkedIn. Don't use the generic invite, but type in your own personal one with a reference to where you met.
See also: Create your personal business brand
This kind of after-event repartee is the core of smart networking, and that's what can ultimately lead to a job. It's typically an organic evolution that develops over time, with occasional emails containing links to interesting articles, moving on to suggestions for lunch or a coffee date.
But the starting block is: Be proactive and learn to glad-hand like a pro. Networking, after all, is just one letter away from not working.
Kerry Hannon, is a career transition expert and an award-winning author. Her latest book is Getting the Job You Want After 50 for Dummies. She has also written Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness and Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy…and Pays the Bills. Find more from Kerry at Kerryhannon.com.