October 9, 2013

ON THE JOB: The awkward art of networking

by Shannon Niedzwicki
Guest columnist

---- — When I think of networking, I think professional conferences. They offer a great opportunity for people in the same industry to get together to discuss new trends and fads and to, well, network.

I have never really had a problem talking to people; it’s figuring out who to talk to and what to talk about that is the problem. Networking is mandatory at an event like a conference, especially if you don’t know anyone and everyone else looks like they know everyone but you. That’s where your networking plan comes into play.

Always go to a networking event with a plan. Be ready for the best, and be prepared for the worst. The first thing I usually do is to look around the room and see if I can spot anyone I know. If not, then it’s time to be social, time to put on my networking face. The only other alternative is to sit in the corner on my iPad and look busy so nobody notices me … and that sounds too much like junior high. No thank you.

Networking events usually begin with some sort of meet-and-greet activity to kick things off. The first part of your plan is to look confident, even if you don’t feel like it; approachable, even if you don’t really want to be approached; and positive, even when you feel negative.

I mean really, who wants to talk to someone who is unapproachable, negative and not the least bit confident? Nobody! You want to start the event on a good note: Smile, make eye contact and shake hands with confidence.

Once you make contact and start the actual networking process, the hardest part comes into play, sharing your personal “elevator pitch.” It’s time to talk about you.

You want to be prepared for this, so ask yourself some questions before hand and know your answers. Who are you? What do you do? What are your aspirations? This way your pitch will be natural and thorough. At an event like a professional conference or meet-and-greet, everyone is doing the same thing so make your pitch memorable. You really want to come up with something clever. Think of your “thing” that makes you stand out.

Starting a conversation is key to networking, but not the whole idea. Don’t forget about people around you. You are not the only one who is intimidated or shy when it comes to networking events.

Don’t hesitate to introduce others and get a bigger conversation going. Isn’t it great when you have a friend, or boyfriend, who introduces you to people to break the ice? This is the same concept. Now you have a conversation going with three or more people and that many more opportunities for you to network in one conversation!

So, you have a conversation going. What do you talk about? This could be awkward if everyone is standing around and nobody really has anything to share. Remember, people love to talk about themselves and being a good conversationalist is being a good listener. Make it a win-win situation.

Ask them about their organizations, what innovative things they are working on, or what challenges they face in their day-to-day lives. Most networking events will have people involved in the same industry or who have some common ground. Build on that.

Phew! The introductions and initial conversation are over, now what? Give them your business card and hopefully they will reciprocate. This way you can continue the networking via email or phone. Once you have their business card, write some notes on the back so you can recall where you were first introduced, which makes it really easy to follow up.

If something doesn’t go as planned, or you feel rejected, just move on. Keep a positive attitude and remember that with a good networking game plan, it doesn’t have to be as awkward as it feels. It can actually work to your advantage and help you get a job, or perhaps better yet, move up in your current job.

Shannon Niedzwicki, director of Career Services for Ivy Tech Community College Kokomo Region, writes an occasional series of columns on finding jobs and succeeding in the workplace. For more information, email Niedzwicki at