NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you're trying to make it to the corner office, you'll never get there by hiding in the corner. For some people, working a room at a networking event seems tantamount to skydiving, but there's no need for shaking a few hands to fill you with dread. Here's a look at five ways to up your networking game and improve the odds of landing your next position.
1. Create a meeting agenda, and practice it.
Unlike an interview where you are in someone else's meeting, networking is your meeting and you are leading it, says Howard Seidel, partner at executive advisory firm Essex Partners.
"Be ready to talk about who you are, what you are trying to find and what kind of help you are seeking," he says. Make sure you know your end game. You should know what your ultimate goal is for this particular networking event. For example, are you working to meet and become linked in with five people in your industry, or do you want to set up one potential one-on-one meeting to forge a stronger connection?"
Decide before you walk in the room how many connections you are going to make, suggests Morag Barrett, CEO of SkyeTeam, an international HR and leadership development firm. This will encourage you to walk up to strangers and introduce yourself.
"If your target is five people, once you have made those connections you can choose to stay or leave," she says. "Nothing says you have to attend all three hours of an event."
Before you go, practice. Have a quick introduction ready to go and be prepared to ask a few simple questions about your new contact. Try to focus on what you can control, not what you can't, says Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a staffing and recruiting firm based in Chicago.
"Show up in professional attire, bring copies of your resume and smile," he says. "Being approachable will draw people in."
2. Find your networking style and demonstrate your passion.
Introverts don't often display passion the way an extrovert will, Seidel says, so it's important to find alternative ways to express what excites you professionally. This could come in the form of stories about the type of work you enjoy or the roles you've had in the past.
"Really examine and know what excites you — write it out and bring it with you," he says.
Keep your personal style in mind when networking. Just because you're making an effort to be more gregarious and dynamic than usual doesn't mean you have to lose sight of who you are.
"Introverts don't have to network like extroverts," he says. "Each person needs to find his or her own approach that works with their personality and level of comfort. For example, one may want to attend smaller events at first, to reduce the chances of being overwhelmed."
3. Take a quality over quantity approach.
When it comes to broadening one's network by reaching out to friends and associates, research shows that extraverts far outpace introverts. But this higher level of networking intensity does not necessarily yield more job leads, says Sharon Basile, human resources specialist at Insperity.
"The quality of these professional and social connections is more important than the quantity," she says. "Instead of simply broadening professional networks by meeting new people, workers should further develop existing relationships or reconnect with former contacts."
A few strong contacts who are invested in an associate's professional growth can provide valuable counsel for tough career decisions and serve as references or advocates during a job hunt.
4. Listen, don't talk.
If you're unsure what to discuss, let the other person do the talking, says Mark Beckner, a business strategy consultant with Inotek Consulting Group.
"If an awkward silence comes up, ask questions to the person speaking," he says. "Show a sincere interest in what they are telling you, and engage them in further dialogue. Meet people where you and they are at." Essentially, he means if you are not comfortable talking about sales, don't discuss sales. If you aren't confident in business, don't discuss business.
Remember your areas of expertise, and try to gravitate toward those topics, he advises. Try to think about forming a relationship with the people you meet rather than trying to sell them something or working to get a job from them.
5. Have a great digital (and real-life) follow-up.
Most people don't follow up after making connections, Barrett says. A simple LinkedIn request works nicely, and a handwritten thank-you card goes the extra mile.
"If you send a personal note, include any information you offered, and also make a commitment to 'give you a call,'" she says. Set the time in which you're going to call.
In-person networking events often involve quick handshakes, business card hand-offs and hurried conversations. These events are not always ideal for a meaningful professional connection, especially for an introvert, Basile says.
"To take the pressure off of making a stellar first impression, gather contact information from new acquaintances at the event and then follow up afterwards for a lunch or coffee meeting," she says. "This will provide an introvert with a more comfortable one-on-one setting to form a strong and potentially useful connection."
— Written by Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet
Follow Kathryn on Twitter @KathrynTuggle.