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by Jane Allen | March 31, 2009

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While the folks at Day-Timers, Inc. have trademarked the slogan: "It's all about you," the most important thing to remember about networking is, "It's NOT all about you." Why? Because the best networkers make it all about other people. Their focus is, "What do you need? How can I help you?" It's connecting with, and making connections for, other people. The first step is meeting people and finding out who they are and what's important to them.

Within the last six months, just a few of the people I've met were: a man representing a document shredding company, a man representing a temporary housing service for executives, a credit counselor, an insurance broker, and a woman who creates memory albums of prose, poetry and photos for special occasions. That's a pretty diverse bunch! I had no need for their services, but I collected their cards and asked about their work. Since meeting them, I've encountered people who did need their services. I passed on the information. That's networking.

Networking begins with having conversations -- making a bit of contact with the people who show up in our lives. Everyone has a story to tell. Your job is to find out what the story is. Sometimes it's about what work they do; sometimes it's not. When people learn that I'm a coach and a retired therapist, they often tell me personal stories that say who they are (aside from what they do). The people you meet want to get to know you and to feel that you know them.

So you know what networking is, but where and when do you do it? All the time and everywhere -- at the gym, the post office, a soccer game. Talk to the woman in the check-out line. Schmooze the guy in the elevator and the one sitting next to you on a plane. And, yes, go to those networking events that most people dread -- those awkward mixers where a lot of people stand around with drink in hand wondering, "Who can I talk to?" Remember, 90 percent of the people there have the same thought ("I hate this."). They want to talk and will welcome a chance to do it. You can be part of the 90 percent (wondering how soon you can leave) or part of the 10 percent who are doing something else.

How do you do "something else"? When you walk in, take TWO of those sticky nametags. On the second one, write something that invites people to approach you. Here are some icebreaker ideas to get your mind working:

Jim is a funny guy, and he's really good at telling jokes. He chooses his current favorite joke and writes on the second tag, "Ask me about ___." For example, if his joke is about a priest, a rabbi and a crocodile, he'll write, "Ask me about the crocodile."

But jokes are not everyone's style. Don't try to transform yourself into a comedian if that doesn't fit your personality. Marty makes networking a game of information exchange. His tag says, "What do we have in common?" He won't accept anything obvious like, "We both live in Houston" or "We're both wearing blue shirts." He asks about work, hobbies, family, schools attended, favorite cities, etc. In five minutes, Marty can find something in common with almost anyone. People listening are intrigued; they line up to be his next subject. And they remember him.

Sally's business is taking tourists (and locals) on walking tours of her city. Her tag promotes that business: "Have: city secrets -- Need: comfortable shoes." Barbara used a have/need tag to find a job. Sam used it to meet people and find a new apartment (after a dramatic rent increase): "Have: greedy landlord -- Need: new apartment."

Bill's in PR and wants to show people how creative he is. He likes to use nonsense questions on his tag. One of them is: "Did you walk to the market or carry a magazine?" It's his way of getting attention and letting prospects know that he'll get attention for them, too, in creative ways. You can make up your own. When people ask, "What's that mean?" you've started a conversation.

If you're looking for reasons not to network, it's easy to collect stories from people who say, "Networking didn't help me!" But those are conversations for excuses. How about choosing to be part of the other group --the people who network every day, make connections and offer to help others? Those are conversations for success. Which sounds best to you?

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Filed Under: Networking

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