Networking 101: How to Talk to Strangers

I will never forget my first professional networking event. I was a 26-year-old rookie recruiter and my boss made me go to it. The room was full of roughly 120 sharp, successful businessmen and women in fancy suits going around the room sharing their 30-second stories. An hour and a half later, it was my turn. By that time, my cold sweat had turned into a lovely shade of red, all the way up my neck and face. However, somehow I survived. Once I was done, I got out of there as fast as I could.

Does this sound familiar? Relax – it doesn't have to be this way.

Thankfully, since then I have learned both the art and science of building robust networks. Since launching ARBEZ in 2006, I have trained over 20,000 people on how to network more effectively, and make their career dreams a reality. Along the way, it has become a passion (OK, obsession) of mine to save others from becoming a deer in the headlights.

So, here is my seven step recipe for success:

1. Smile.

2. Make eye contact.

3. Say "Hello".

4. Stick out your hand and shake theirs – firmly. (Please, no dead fish or death grips. Both are horrible when you are on the receiving end.)

5. State your name. (Your full name. I know a lot of Bobs. Sorry. I want to remember you, and last names really help me do it.)

6. Ask a great opening question.

7. Get as curious as a 4-year-old.

Now, Let's spend a little time on the last two.

Opening questions: Everyone needs at least one conversation-starter in their hip pocket. It should be open-ended, genuine and about something other than work. Here are some good ones: "What do you do for fun?", "How did you hear about this event/party/restaurant/etc...”, "What brings you here today?", and “What do you do for fun in the winter/summer?” which is a nice twist on "How's the weather?", "Do you have any big plans for [insert upcoming holiday or season]?" You get the picture. Pick one you like, or come up with a few of your own, then try them out until you find a few that work for you.

Getting curious: Interested is interesting. It really isn’t all about you. Studies have shown that people blossom and engage openly when someone takes a genuine interest in them. It is the charm of the marvelous listener. Next time you feel the heat rising in your neck, focus on the other person. Get curious like a 4-year-old, ask thoughtful, inquisitive questions, and most of the time you’ll watch the conversation come alive.

What to do when things go wrong:

I must divulge – after 15 years and thousands of handshakes, I have never been laughed at or spit on. I have, however, certainly had some really uncomfortable moments. When this happens to you (which it will), just know that the other person’s discomfort, short answers and bad eye contact probably have nothing to do with you. They might be nervous, terrified or in the middle of a really bad day. Or, perhaps they really are a rude person. So be it. Regardless, be nice, try a little harder before you give up, then smile and move on to someone who is ready and willing to engage.

Enjoy this topic? Want to learn more and have fun crafting your own personal recipe for success? Join us at Rasmussen College on Feb. 21 for a fun, yet very practical workshop. You will walk away with 2-3 conversation-starters, a personal game plan and a healthy dose of the self-confidence you need to dive right in.

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She’s been called a “networking ninja,” but Catherine Byers Breet of Arbez.com and a partner of Rasmussen College, is really just someone who understands the power, joy and occasional pain of building a robust network. She is a business owner, game-changer and highly-sought speaker with 15-plus years of proven success building relationships and business. Today, she and her company are driving innovation around networking, career strategy, talent attraction and retention both online and off for corporations, higher education and workforce development firms. She’s been featured in print (Associated Press, Campus Career Counselor, Star Tribune) and on TV (WCCO, Fox9 and tpt).

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