(Last Updated On: 04/04/2017)

When I work with students, one of the most common questions I get is, “Just how exactly do I network?” Building relationships is integral to career success, and while many of us know that intellectually, it can sometimes be difficult for us to take action and get out there. Here are some “Do’s” and “Don’ts” to help get you started!

DO – Shift Your Perspective

Networking isn’t something that only happens in a hotel conference room, when you’re dressed to the nines in an uncomfortable suit, surrounded by stale crackers and cheese. It’s something that happens every day, all around us.

The act of networking is simply exchanging information for mutual benefit. Said even more basically – it’s about helping each other. If you can shift your thinking and view networking as a chance to offer something to another person, it takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?

You have something to offer someone. You have connections and relationships in your life that could be the bridge for someone else in finding a new job or opportunity. How much more fun does it feel to think of it that way?

DON’T – Be Overly Formal

Networking pushes us out of our comfort zone, no doubt. It’s easier to stay in circles of familiarity where the safety of friendly faces is guaranteed.

When we reach out to those we don’t know, we can unwittingly let the nerves get the better of us. And when that happens, sometimes the “cardboard cutout” version of us takes over. I’ve been victim to this myself. Suddenly I realize my smile is frozen and fake, my palms are sweaty so they’re shoved in my pockets, and I’m awkwardly stammering out sentences – nodding my head too vigorously and laughing too loud at a joke that really wasn’t that funny.

When that happens, it’s time to take a deep breath and hit the reset button. We’re all human beings, and building relationships is about being genuine in who you are. Not everyone will be the right match or “fit” for what you need. And you won’t know that unless you are truly yourself. When in doubt, smile, speak slowly and remember to breathe!

DO – Practice

Even the most seasoned professionals can get tongue tied when asked the question, “So, tell me about yourself!” “Ummm, I secretly watch back to back episodes of Girl Code on MTV every Friday night while inhaling pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. My favorite color is pale pink, and I am terribly uptight when it comes to the organization of my sock drawer.” Is that what you want to know?” Probably not.

It’s amazing what can roll off one’s tongue when not prepared to answer this question. Try thinking about your experience using the acronym “NEWS” – Name, Education, Work Experience and Skills”. For example, “Hi, my name is Erika. I have a Masters Degree in Career Guidance and over 15 years of experience in people development. I really enjoy writing and facilitating workshops and would love to learn more about your company.” Sounds a little better, yes? Great. Now give me back my spoon, the next episode is about to start.

DON’T – Be One Sided

I wrote earlier that networking is really about helping each other. But we often don’t think about tapping into our network until we need something.

Rather than only doing it when we are desperate for work or unhappy in our current position, try reaching out and offering help/resources/connections to others BEFORE you are in need. What goes around comes around, and you’ll be setting yourself up for some great career karma down the road.

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Erika is a career development professional with over 15 years of experience in both corporate and higher education settings. Her current role is Assistant Director of Career Education at a private university in Chicago, Illinois. She also works with individuals on strengths discovery, interviewing skills and networking. She can be reached at careerplayground (at) gmail.com