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by Lynne Waymon | March 10, 2009

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In speeches and workshops, I've asked thousands of professionals: "What's the dollar amount you'll spend this year on so-called 'networking' activities?" I've heard everything from $75 to $175,000.

What about you? What will you spend this year on your contact-building activities? Make a list including dues for clubs you belong to or plan to join and the cost of events you'll attend, such as trade shows, conferences, professional meetings, receptions, luncheons, and golf outings. List your expenses for any activity you're involved in that's designed to help you build relationships that will help you to improve your career.

Total the amount. Are you getting enough bang for your buck? The goal of networking is to get job offers to come to you. In other words, when a career opportunity arises, your relationship-building activities result in your being the natural and only choice for your ideal employer to call.

Effective networking will help you become visible and credible to your target market.

The return on your investment is a lifetime of job security. Some networking activities will be costly and time consuming but worth every dollar and minute. Others will be inexpensive and quick and equally worthwhile.

But if you're not networking effectively, you could be wasting your time and money. Whatever you spend on networking, here are five tips to help you get the most from your efforts.

1. Don't say, "I'm too busy," "I'm too broke" or "I'm too bashful."

Make time for meeting others. Many activities that are conducive to meeting people are inexpensive. Outlets to consider include chambers of commerce, government agencies, professional associations, trade groups and job-search referral groups. Choose to join at least two groups that include people in your job-search target. Don't just pay your dues and expect something to happen. Make being active part of your strategy.

Participate in activities that will help you meet people in ways that are comfortable for you, provide you with visibility, and showcase your character and competence. Learn the appropriate etiquette for building professional relationships, such as when to give out your business card, how to join groups of people who are talking with each other, and how to end conversations so you'll be remembered or know how to follow up.

2. Don't answer the often asked, "What do you do?" with a job, title, or organization name.

Instead, describe a talent and then show how you used it to solve a problem, save the day or serve a customer. Make your answers short, snappy, memorable, jargon-free, interesting and crystal clear. Even if you don't currently have a job, you still have lots of talents. Talk about them with enthusiasm.

3. When someone asks, "What's new?" don't say, "Not much," "Same old thing" or "I've been working really hard."

Be prepared for this question. If you weren't born with the gift of gab, think of topics that you're eager to talk about because of who you are, where you've been and what you're seeking. Respond to "What's new?" with ideas, information, recent successes and inquiries about resources you need. In other words, prepare an "agenda" so your small talk is smart talk. Good conversationalists are easy for people to remember and reconnect with later. Talking about more than the weather and sports will help people learn about your special talents and services.

Think about what's on your agenda before you attend a social or professional event. Be ready to talk about resources and topics that interest you and you know well. Also, be ready to describe what you're seeking. Answer the question, "What do I want to learn and whom do I want to learn it from?

When you know what's on your agenda, you're never at a loss for what to talk about. A salesman who wanted to move into sales training asked his contacts what they had read about training so he could learn the best training ideas. A home-based business owner who was seeking a part-time assistant described her ideal candidate to several people. She received a call from a candidate the next day.

4. When you've forgotten someone's name, don't say, "I'm sorry. I can't remember your name."

If you draw a blank on someone's name, you've got three choices. If you remember what the two of you last talked about, say, "Great to see you again. How was your trip to Orlando?" Another option is to reintroduce yourself. Say, "Hi! I'm Susan Wentworth. We met at the reception." Or you could say with enthusiasm and warmth, "Hi. I remember you. Tell me your name again." Introducethat person to someone else at the event. You'll do the person a favor and be more likely to remember learn his or her name.

5. Don't go for "cardboard connections."

You're only kidding yourself if you think handing out dozens of business cards is networking. Put your energy into making a conversational connection. Seek a reason to offer your card. Don't just listen -- listen generously. Search your memory for resources and names of people you know who can help others. Be known as a "great connector" and for giving more than you get.

Even if you hate meeting people and lack the gift of gab, networking know-how is crucial to your success. With a little practice, you can get your money's worth out of every event you attend.

-- Ms. Waymon, a professional speaker and trainer in Silver Spring, Md., is the co-author of "Make Your Contacts Count" (AMACOM, 2002) with Anne Baber.

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