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When you hear the word “networking,” what comes to mind? Do you see yourself with sweaty palms and anxiety pressing on your chest? Do you picture people wearing phony smiles and handing out business cards like free samples at the grocery store? Do you think about making awkward small talk over a soup and salad lunch?

Networking doesn’t have to be this way! In fact, it shouldn’t be this way. When done properly, networking is all about helping one another and making valuable connections. It isn’t about forcing business cards onto those who aren’t interested in your services. It isn’t about trying to frantically gather as many new connections as possible. It’s about quality interactions that are mutually beneficial.

To overcome your mental barriers, actually enjoy (gasp!) networking, and start making valuable connections, try using the following guidelines at your next event. Who knows, the next person you meet could propel your career, offer important guidance or support, or connect you with yet another person who can help you meet your career goals.

1. Reframe Your Thinking

Give networking a new name! Instead of thinking of it as “networking,” think of it as bridge-building, growing your community, or meeting interesting new people. By reframing the way you think about networking, you can overcome some of the mental obstacles associated with it.

2. Always Aim To Provide Value

Don’t try to sell your services to someone who clearly does not need them. Your goal should be to provide value to other people, to figure out how you might be able to help them. Ask questions to unearth needs and discover whether or not your skillset or offerings align with their requirements.

3. Create A Tagline

Businesses have their own slogans and taglines—McDonalds has “I’m Lovin’ It,” Nike has “Just Do It,” Maybelline has “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline.” These are phrases that stick in your head because they’re punchy and give you some sense of the brand’s image and values. Create your own career tagline to describe what you do. It should be straightforward, but memorable. Some examples are:

“I write business content, so you don’t have to”

“I build beautiful websites with personality”

“I make social media marketing easy”

4. Ask Good Questions

A great way to open the floor for a positive interaction is to ask questions. Be genuinely curious about the other person and learn about what they do, their interests, and how you might be able to help them. Ask open-ended questions (typically, questions that start with “How,” “What,” or “Why”) and actively listen to the answers.

Asking questions can help you learn about the other person’s personality and their business needs. It allows you to play off their social cues and lets them drive the conversation. In other words, it’s the perfect tactic for anyone who suffers from networking anxiety!

Showing an interest in others is not only good for building your personal image (others will see you as generous and curious), it’s also a great way to do some detective work. Just don’t forget to tell the other person a little bit about yourself as well!

5. Follow Up

You’ve put in all the legwork to connect with others—don’t let it go to waste! Make a concerted effort to follow up at least a couple times, add your new connection to your email list, and befriend them on LinkedIn. In other words, make yourself present in their sphere. Even if they do not need your services at the moment, they may need them eventually.

Get out there and make this year your best bridge-building year yet! Keep in mind that you’re probably not the only one with networking jitters. Do your best to relax and ask good questions, and you’ll put both yourself and others at ease. You’ve got this!

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS®DISCOVERY LICENSED PRACTITIONER, FOUNDER OF UXL, AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE TAG TEAM. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. YOU CAN VISIT HER WEBSITE AT WWW.YOUEXCELNOW.COM

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tips for successful networking

Even if you’re not looking for a new job, networking is still a valuable pursuit. It’s a chance to learn more about your industry, the jobs you didn’t know existed in your field, how to advance your career, or how to start your own business. For some people, networking can feel like shallow interactions that are barely masking the attitude of “what can you do for me?” but this doesn’t need to be the case. With a positive disposition and helpful strategies in place, networking can be the start of a nurturing, collaborative, trustworthy community for you.

Practice your intro

You may not be selling a product or an idea, but in networking scenarios, you need to market your skills and talent. When people ask you about your job title and your pursuits, have a clear, short summary ready to go. Practice it in the mirror or record yourself, if you can; hearing your voice played back can help you determine where to pause or when to punch up your pitch for optimal recollection, for you and your potential contacts.

Set goals for yourself

Networking goals will vary between people and industries, but it is important to set them. It’s far too easy to sweep that type of work under the rug, but setting goals will keep you accountable. Create goals that are achievable: attend at least one networking event within the next month, reach out to three new people in your industry, or schedule a meeting with an existing contact. Once you meet those goals, make new ones.

Treat every encounter as important, because it is

While it is easy to think of networking as a means to a new job, there is more to be gained from these interactions. Don’t dismiss someone because they can’t help you right now: the benefit of continued communication could come around in three months or three years. Keep in mind that they could also introduce you to someone else who needs your skills.

Follow up

After you meet these new contacts, you need to reach out before they start collecting dust. Use the method of communication that works for both of you: phone, email, Skype, or face-to-face. Check in regularly and ask them about what they’re working on, what projects they see for the near future, and the skills and experience needed to complete their work. If your skills don’t align with their needs, you might recommend someone from your network. Consistent, thoughtful communication will hopefully result in contacts thinking of you when relevant opportunities come across their desk.

Bring people together

As you your network grows and you learn about the skills and needs of your contacts, you may realize that one needs the services of the other. This is what networking is all about: helping people connect. Hopefully, they will get a chance to repay the favor: when one of those contacts comes across a job posting or freelance opportunity in your field, you know they will think of you first.

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