Here's the classic scenario. You're at a university careers event where there's a panel of industry speakers preaching and speeching about their jobs, and taking questions from the floor. It's all very interesting, but you can sense the keen beans around you eyeing up the panelists, and itching to ambush them at the all-important "networking drinks" afterwards. As the event draws to a close, people swiftly start to home in on the prime networking locations - the buffet, the bar. They swoop in on their prey armed with small-talk and hand gestures - and somehow, they're clutching ten business cards within five minutes. You're not sure where to look or where to go, and frankly you find the whole thing contrived and embarrassing, so you leave with no business cards, and without talking to anyone. If this confused and passive character sounds like you, don't stress - you're not alone.
While The Gateway doesn't approve of some of these outrageous sleaze-bags butting everyone else out of the way, so they can "talk the talk" (believe us, we're cringing too), we reckon that networking is pretty important for career success. That's why we've compiled a list of ten ways to become a networking pro, whilst maintaining your streetcred of course.
Do your research
Appearing uninformed isn't going to impress anyone, and will mean that you won't be getting the most out of your potential future contacts. Do some snooping on the internet well in advance, and if there's a hand-out at the event, read it throughly. All will fall into place when you can sneakily demonstrate your knowledge and insight by asking a killer question that will really grab the attention of the people that matter.
You need to think about both your body language, and the way in which you approach people. If the person you want to talk to is mid-conversation with someone else, you should stand near them and wait your turn politely. If it's a group conversation, don't be afraid to ease your way into the discussion. When you introduce yourself, say your name and give a firm handshake. Make sure you hold yourself with confidence - keep your shoulders back, keep your hand out of your pockets, maintain eye contact and smile.
Plucking up the courage to approach people can be tough, but don't pretend to be someone that you're not. A bit of adrenaline pumping through your veins is a good thing - and it's normal to feel nervous, but don't use this as an excuse to build a fake persona. People who do this can often come across as irritating and insincere.
Pretending to know what you're talking about when you don't is a dangerous game to play whilst networking. If you don't know something, don't feel ashamed to ask - it's actually a great way to start a conversation. You'll be respected far more if you're trying to plug gaps in your knowledge than if you're rattling on about something about which you're obviously clueless.
Ask open-ended questions
The trick to getting a conversation flowing in a networking situation is to ask questions that require more than a one-word answer. For example, questions such as: "So how did you get into corporate law?" or "What is the LPC like?" are much better than: "Do you enjoy your job?", or "How many interns are you taking this year?". Once you've got your target going on a topic, it'll buy you some time to think about how they might be able to help you, and how to direct the conversation there.
Food and alchohol
It's true that a glass of wine or a beer can help things flow, but get drunk at networking events at your peril. Employers know you're a student and like a good time, but there really is a time and a place for getting mashed. Show a little self restraint, and limit yourself to one or two drinks - if you feel awkward without a glass in your hand, opt for a soft drink. In terms of food, buffets are a great place to strike up a conversation, but no-one wants to see your chewed-up egg and cress sandwich - so remember your manners and don't talk with your mouth full.
Build up a rapport
Remember that, although people in suits might seem intimidating, they're real people just like you, and they like to have fun too. Chatting about your surroundings can be a nice way to fire up a conversation, and don't be afraid to crack a joke or two to break up a dialogue if it's getting a bit heavy. A huge part of success in the workplace is getting on with people, and potential contacts are much more likely to want to stay in touch if you appeal to them as a person.
Make yourself memorable
Selling yourself to a stranger (yeah, not in that way) might not feel like the most natural thing in the world, but there's no shame in knowing what your strengths are, and dropping them into conversation to make yourself stand out from the crowd. For example, if you're a key player in a university society, or have work experience relevant to the sector you're trying to get into, or even if you have an unusual hobby, it's all going to get you remembered for the right reasons.
If you meet someone who could be useful to you, aim to maintain an appropriate element of contact with them. Doing so can sometimes feel a little awkward, but remember that you, as a student at one of the top 15 universities in the UK, will be seen as a high-calibre potential future employee. While not everyone will have time to correspond with you, it's worth getting in touch again if it feels right. Ask people for their business cards, and then drop them an email a few days after you've met them. Asking to be their friend on Facebook is a no-no, but once you've exchanged a few emails or arranged to meet up, adding them as a contact on LinkedIn is the professional equivalent if you want to use social media to manage your career.
The opportunity to network isn't restricted to formal events. In fact, some of the best networking you'll do may well crop up in social situations or through chance encounters. We don't mean you should accost someone in a lift just because you hear them talking about graduate recruitment (please don't do that), but if you discover friends' parents or other people you know are in the area you'd like to go into, there's no harm in arranging to go for coffee, or to have a quick chat on the phone.