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Networking Advice

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You know that networking is good for your career, but the mere prospect of mingling in a room of strangers gives you major anxiety — you can feel the butterflies and sweaty palms already.

There's good news: nobody's actually expecting you to be the most interesting man or woman in the room. You just need to be a livelier, more confident, more interesting version of yourself. Pasting on a fake-it-till-you-make-it smile is step one. Then try these expert tips to help you relax and make new, authentic connections. You may be surprised at how easy it is to stand up proud and stand out from the crowd.

Come Prepared With Icebreakers

Vanessa Van Edwards, a behavioral investigator at the coaching firm Science of People in Portland, OR, recommends having three to five good conversation starters ready to go. "I am a big believer in conversational tools," she says. "It's hard to come up with stuff to talk about on the fly." Her favorite conversation starters include basic questions like "What was the highlight of your day today?" and more probing questions like "When you were growing up, what was your dream job? Is any part of that still true?"

Edwards also suggests arming yourself with a little pop culture knowledge: "Don't be afraid to bring up the latest internet meme, news topic, or viral video. Before walking into an event, check out the latest news feeds for an easy 'Did you hear . . . '"

Dr. Susan Miller, a speech pathologist and vocal coach in Washington DC, agrees that conscious preparation is important. "Think about what you might say," she says. "Have an intention every time you enter a conversation."

Ask Questions to Make a Connection

"Sometimes we're so worried about what we're going to say and how we're going to come across that we don't think at all about the other person," Miller notes. The key to making a real connection? "It all comes down to showing an interest in people," she says. Meaning, be someone's audience.

Asking questions can help inform your online job search. When you meet new people, inquire about their current and past employers and see how they like(d) working there. If the feedback is positive, make a mental note to look for open positions at these companies when you go online to look for jobs. (Your new connection might even be able to help you get your foot in the door.)

Although networking is technically about self-promotion, skip the temptation to launch right into your elevator pitch. "Selling yourself is weird and awkward," says Jessica Hagy, author of How to Be Interesting, "but getting to know someone is a natural thing. If you let other people open up and talk about themselves, you become memorable — a safe person, a friend."

Tell a Really Good Story

The inquisitive strategy can go bad on you if overused. You might come off as an interrogator. Also, you do need the person to walk away with a memory of you, so you'll need to interject with more than just an "Mmmhmmm" to achieve that.

When it's your turn to share something about yourself, don't simply rattle off a few facts as if you were reading from your résumé. Tell a brief story about a funny or curious thing that happened to you.

"Our brains light up the moment we hear a personal story," Van Edwards says. "I have a note in my phone where I jot down things that happen to me and then use them as conversational fodder."

Be Mindful of Body Language

The way you carry yourself plays a key role in creating a comfortable space for others and projecting confidence. Van Edwards says body language is especially important in the first few moments you meet someone. "The best thing you can do is to have an open torso," she says. "Don't block yourself off with arms crossed or a drink clutched to your chest. Point your toes, torso, and head toward the person you are speaking with to show them you are completely in tune with them."

Van Edwards suggests making it a point to nod and lean in as you ask questions and share your own stories. The more receptive you seem to others, the more likely they'll be to reciprocate.

When in Doubt, Be Authentic

Don't assume that you have to pretend to be someone else in order to be interesting. "Let yourself be yourself," Hagy says. Chances are that other people will be drawn to your patterns, skills, and interests because they're unique to you.

Hagy gives an example from her own experience as a freelance writer and artist: at first she didn't think anyone would find the details of her job and routines very interesting, but she has realized that people are curious about what she does and her work-from-home patterns. That has made her more confident at networking events. "It's not intimidating," she says. "It's just having conversations."

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