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How to Make the Most of Every Networking Opportunity

Networking opportunities come in all forms, from a planned informational interview or career fair to an impromptu introduction at a social gathering. In fact, something as simple as having your conversation at a coffee shop overheard by someone in your field could be the start of a lasting professional relationship. It’s impossible to predict when and where you’ll bump into someone you’d like to connect with, so being prepared to forge and maintain a new addition to your network at all times is vital.

Of course, it’s important to always network tactfully, so this doesn’t mean you should pursue opportunities in every social setting. Rather, it’s important to prepare yourself, assess the situation, and be ready to follow up should anything arise.

Being Prepared

Whether you’re going to a networking event or simply heading out to lunch, you should always have three key tools at your disposal:  a few conversation starters, an elevator pitch, and a small stack of business cards. Make this a habit by keeping a few business cards in your wallet at all times and memorizing some key points of your elevator pitch so you don’t have to think too much about it when the time comes. As for preparing talking points, don’t go for anything too contrived—this can be achieved simply by remaining up-to-date on industry news, knowing what your current short-term and long-term goals are, and listening to what your possible future contact has to say.

Assessing the Opportunity

There are a few possible scenarios when meeting a new professional in your field, and it’s important to know which you find yourself in before you move further. Three main types of networking opportunities are the new connection(s), the exploratory opportunity, and the direct opportunity.

In the first, you have the opportunity to meet a new person or group of people in your industry. You never know where these relationships can lead, so these connections are just as vital to your network as is the hiring manager of your target company. In these situations, be sure to ask questions, exchange business cards, and discuss some industry news. It’s best to start these scenarios off with friendly, professional conversation.

Should you meet someone who has something to offer, be sure to deliver that elevator pitch along with your business card. The elevator pitch can come in handy when networking with peers as well, but when meeting those with possible or definite opportunities, be sure to lay out what you can offer and what your goals are for the future. Just be sure to avoid appearing presumptuous or assumptive, whether there’s a solid position available or simply the opportunity to explore possibilities—there is no guarantee your contact will be able to help you, and nobody likes feeling pressured.

Following Up

Once you successfully connect with someone, follow up to thank them for their time and mention that it was great meeting with them. If you can recap one talking point from your meeting, such as “I found your views on X to be interesting” or “I’m really interested in talking further about Y,” that’s a great way to keep the conversation going for the future. Next, do something to help—either reach out with an article you think they’d find helpful, connect them to someone who can further help them with their own goals, or simply offer your help should they need anything. The best way to ensure success with any professional in your network is to stay in touch and give back, regardless of what you receive.

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