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How Can I Build Networking Skills?

Conversing with perfect strangers is not easy. Even those known as outstanding networkers had to learn how. Their secret, they tell me, is preparation. Before you go to an event where you will have an opportunity to meet with people whom you don’t know but whom you would like to know, you should think of two or three questions or comments to begin a conversation.

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If you are new to such meetings, ask the other person about such events. If you are talking to someone who has spoken at the meeting, express interest in his or her presentation and follow the compliment with a question. If you don’t want to talk about the organization or speaker’s presentation, ask about upcoming events or talk about the facility in which the meeting is being held.

Compliments always work, but so does honesty. If you feel uncomfortable walking up to a group of strangers in conversation, identify yourself and ask if you can join them, explaining that you have promised to meet at least one or two new people during the meeting. It’s amazing how effective this can be. These former strangers often will go out of their way to introduce you to others at the meeting they know.

Increasingly, organizations hold networking sessions for their members. But that isn’t the only place to meet people. Here are other ways to meet people:

  1. Find opportunities for your professional colleagues and acquaintances to introduce you to their friends. Being a friend of a friend is a quick way to establish rapport.
  2. Befriend successful people. Lending a hand without any intention of getting anything in return can prompt the person in need to return the favor later on. If the person is well-connected, that person might find a way to make you a member of his or her network.
  3. Extend yourself at trade shows, seminars, and professional meetings, assuming a leadership role if needed. Potential network members will be impressed with your generosity and/or capability.
  4. Rethink your lifestyle. Find opportunities to meet more people. For instance, don’t lunch with the same person over and over again. Invite new individuals to join or arrange group luncheons.

Building a network is an ongoing responsibility. Given the time and energy you will make to add members to your network, you want to keep your network healthy. To do that:

Stay in touch. Don’t just call or e-mail when you want something. Let the individual know that you are there to help with his or her needs. If you are asked for help, keep in mind that your kindness will be remembered when you have a favor to ask.

Remain trustworthy. Confidences shared should remain confidences. Promises made should be kept. One misstep, and you can wipe out an entire network.

Say "thank you." We get so wrapped up in running our businesses that we forget to say these two simple words. Better yet, write a brief note that shows your appreciation. You can e-mail your thanks but somehow a handwritten note says it so much better.

Be upbeat. We all have bad days, and there may be members of your network to whom you can share your troubles, but don’t make all your communications negative or "me-focused."