Networking is research-proven to be the overwhelmingly best way to land a job, better than job board hunting and recruiter services.
But for most of us—introverts, especially—selling oneself as a "brand" doesn’t come naturally. Something as small as fully owning the skills section of your resume feels like pulling your own teeth; shoving yourself out the door to walk into a room of strangers feels like a root canal.
Here's how to calm the nerves and awkwardness that come with wading into a crowd of industry pros, in search of your next big break:
Before you start sweating through your best suit at a job fair or luncheon, ease into the networking scene with a more casual event. Try a local Meetup that has the group doing an activity, like hiking or pickup soccer, where meeting like-minded professionals doesn’t mean standing less than a foot from close-talkers and business-card-hawkers.
Getting more casual also means smaller groups with more specific expertise. You’re less likely to wade through a dozen dead-end introductions, and have more relatable conversations, when you’ve narrowed it down to just "business analysts who also love bowling."
More on getting specific, from Mashable:
Tech crawls, like pub crawls but with more tech talk, can be a more relaxed approach to rubbing elbows. Hackathons can also be a great way for tech talent to mingle, since there's common ground to discuss and attendees can focus on work if the mingling aspect becomes overwhelming.
Along the same lines as an activity-based event, volunteering gives you a chance to show off your skills, rather than talk them up and hope for a bite. That doesn’t mean pulling weeds and painting rec centers; you can volunteer your time and talents in ways that build a portfolio, whether it’s in web design or business consulting. Sites like Idealist focus on skills-based opportunities in nonprofit, part, or full time, and volunteer opportunities.
Pretending you’re there for the joy of it, and not to meet people for their career connections, is exhausting. If a ladder-climbing competition thinly veiled as a cocktail hour makes you jittery, try finding or forming your own networking meetup group.
You’ll be able to control the environment, the size of the crowd, and the types of professionals that you send the call-out to. The downside to starting your own group: You’ll need to have attended a bunch of these already, to get a feel for how they should work and what your industry expects. But if you just can’t stomach one more hotel lobby full of stale hors d'oeuvres and science fair-esque poster boards, give it a shot. Maybe meeting strangers in a park for beers and barbecue is more your speed.
Even though networking is credited with nearly half of the jobs landed today, the connection that will start your career chain reaction likely won’t fall into your lap at a mixer. Informational interviews are a low-obligation way to gather information about breaking into your industry, while getting your name and face out there. Approaching companies, hiring managers, and people who have your dream job for a cup of coffee or a 15-minute chat over the phone, brings the pressure of a full room down to a one-on-one. You won’t be able to blend into a crowd, but the knowledge and exposure you’ll come away with is exponential in comparison.
As Mashable notes, networking online breaks the boundaries of location and nervous small-talk, to get down to the point. "Such is the power of social media, making it easier than ever before to build up a personal brand, take part in industry conversations, and build personal connections with those in your field," writes Michael Dennis.
That doesn’t mean crop-dusting Facebook friend requests and Linkedin connection invitations—but again, be specific about what you’re looking for, and seek out groups or Twitter accounts of companies or people you aspire to work alongside. Making an online connection before the in-person meeting gives you a conversation starter and the familiarity of "knowing" someone in the room, even if only online.
[Image: Flickr user Araí Moleri Riva-Zucchelli]