While developing your online presence is one way to network without having to show up in person, the reality is that face-to-face networking still plays a major role in the hiring process. A personal contact just has more weight than the connections you make in the online world.
As many as 70-80% of jobs are filled without a published job posting.
Many of these positions are filled through personal contacts. Even for the jobs that include an official search, letters of recommendation and leveraging real world relationships is a critical way to get your foot in the door to land an interview over potentially hundreds of other applicants.
For the socially awkward, face-to-face networking is often a source of major anxiety. But avoiding it all together can be career suicide. Here are 7 tips to make the most of in-person networking opportunities.
1) Prepare in Advance
If you are an introvert, you have heard this before, so I won’t belabor the point. You already know that putting in some front-end preparation can take the sting out of that all-too-familiar moment when it’s your turn to talk.
Here is a practical way to structure your prep. Write down or practice the answers to these common networking conversation starters:
- Why are you interested in this industry?
- Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
- What kind of training and experience do you have?
- What are your personal interests and/or hobbies?
- What is your ideal job?
- What was your favorite subject in college?
You won’t be able to practice for every possible scenario which is fine because that isn’t the point. Preparing is just about refreshing some of the information that you might need to recall in a pinch and practicing the kinds of interactions you are likely to have. Practice helps you feel a little more confident navigating questions when the pressure is on.
2) Set Goals Before You Go
Let’s face it. If social gatherings are anxiety inducing events for you, it can be really hard to stay mentally present and make the most of the opportunity. If you find yourself looking for the exit within minutes of your arrival, this probably applies to you.
Consider setting some reasonable goals for yourself that make sense in the context of the specific event. Be sure they are clear and specific. This can give you a target to shoot for that is attainable, as well as something concrete to put your focus on.
Examples of specific networking goals might include:
- Introduce yourself to at least 3 people.
- Trade business cards with 2 or more people in the sector you are interested in.
- Set up at least one coffee meeting with an insider in your target industry.
- Ask one experienced professional in your field about why they chose that field, and how they got to where they are now.
Setting and achieving measurable goals during social networking events allows you to focus on what you accomplished afterwards, rather than dwelling on all of the social interactions that may have felt awkward, or that you wish you could do over. By associating these kinds of experiences with concrete accomplishments, you can start to take some of the anxiety out of them over the long haul.
3) Identify Your Comfort Zone
Sure, getting out of your comfort zone is an important part of long-term personal development of any kind. However, that does not mean there is not value in finding your comfort zone and operating inside of it. When it comes to job seeking, you want to give yourself all the advantages you can.
The dreaded job fair is what usually comes to mind when we think about networking. Full of strangers and limited time which tends to add pressure, this kind of event may not be ideal for your communication style. However, there are other ways to build face-to-face relationships that could lead to your next big job.
Identify social clubs around hobbies or personal interests that you hold dear and commit to attending events regularly. This will give you a chance to meet people in your local area who share an interest in something you are able to talk passionately about. It gives you time to develop relationships over several meetings, rather than putting so much pressure on a 5-minute conversation.
If you choose to invest your networking energy in social groups related to your personal interests, keep in mind that it will only contribute to your career visibility if you make sure to raise the subject of your vocation. People need to know you are looking in order to share whatever insider knowledge about job opportunities they may have.
Industry Specific Organizations
Another option for networking are industry related organizations that often host speaker events, conferences, workshops, or social gatherings. Again, this gives you the advantage of taking your time to get to know people as well as targeting your investment of time and energy to people who are most likely to be in a position to become a personal contact for a future job.
Finally, volunteering around a cause that interests you is another way to make lasting and real relationships that can translate into serious career opportunities. Plus, taking on a service role in a non-profit organization gives you a chance to showcase your professional talents to people in your community.
4) Learn to Ask Great Questions
Asking questions is a great way to take the pressure off of yourself to be the generator of conversation. In fact, many introverts find that mastering this skill is the secret to becoming more comfortable in social situations of all kinds.
Here are the kinds of questions that work best:
If you ask a yes or no question, and get a quick yes or no answer, the pressure is right back on you to come up with a follow up. Instead, learn to ask open ended questions that indicate your interest in the person, while opening up room for them to elaborate.
- What has been one of the most challenging moments in your career path?
- What advice do you have for someone at this stage in their career?
- What projects have been most inspiring for you to work on, and why?
Try to do some advance research about the key people that will be at the event, particularly those that might be best suited to be a resource for you in your career goals. Read their professional bios or LinkedIn profile to learn about their areas of expertise, interesting twists in their career trajectory, or more about the special projects they are working on. Then, craft questions that both demonstrate your interest in their career path as well as give them ample opportunity to talk about themselves.
Listen, Validate, Connect
After you ask your question, listen as they answer. Make sure you use some validating body language such as nodding your head and smiling. In particular, listen for points of connections such as a shared interest, area of expertise, or passion. These are good topics for a conversation that can move towards a memorable connection.
5) The Social Benefits of Being the Quiet and Reserved Type
If you are an introvert, chances are you have great listening skills. That can be a tremendous advantage when meeting new people. While it might seem like the loudest talkers who always have something to say are just “better” at socializing, it might be that you are giving them an overly generous read because of your own sense that there must be something wrong with your more reserved style.
In fact, often times the extrovert that is trying too hard to seem knowledgeable and witty may be giving off a less than ideal first impression by sharing too much. It happens all the time.
There is a lot of potential social power in holding your cards close to the vest. It keeps people interested in learning more about you and can make them feel at ease knowing you will give them room to shine. People often read quiet people as thoughtful, reflective, and intelligent.
If you can learn to get comfortable with a less gregarious style of interaction, you are likely to find that people respond positively to your presence.
Networking for the Introvert: Follow Through and Follow Up
If you are socially awkward, face-to-face networking poses unique challenges. However, the value of making personal contacts is too important to ignore. Remember that in any situation where meeting new people is the goal of an event, everyone is feeling a bit nervous.
After you get through your next networking event, be sure to take some time to pat yourself on the back for going through with it, and hopefully, accomplishing some of your goals. Before you close the door on the experience, make sure to follow up with any contacts you made. Luckily, you can do that over email!